Sunday, August 26, 2012

More from the Pulps: THE SPIDER STRIKES!

Thank goodness for the Kindle store on Amazon; it's making a lot of classic pulp titles available. In addition to Doc Savage and the Shadow, I'm also diving into The Spider.

The Spider, aka Richard Wentworth, first appeared in September of 1933, and was the seventh character to get his own magazine. (Aside from Doc Savage and the Shadow, there were folks like The Phantom Detective, G-8 and his Battle Aces, Secret Agent X, The Avenger, Captain Future, The Black Bat, and probably a few others I've missed; the old hero pulps are seen as the forerunners of modern comic books, with the influences on them very, very obvious.) He's from the same publisher that did The Shadow and there's quite a few similarities between the two characters on the surface, although there are significant differences.

In The Spider Strikes, the first novel in the series, Richard Wentworth is a wealthy playboy already known as an amateur detective and crime-fighter. He's returning from Europe after attempting to track down a mysterious criminal known as Mr. X, a genius of disguise who seems able to infiltrate anywhere he pleases and gets away with bizarre crimes. He's a vicious criminal who has some sort of nebulous plan and Wentworth is trying to track him down.

"The Spider" is Wentworth's alter ego; actually, The Spider is wanted for murder, and he's basically a George Kaplan-esque character (watch North by Northwest if you don't get that reference)  who gets blamed for any deaths that Wentworth causes. He's got few scruples about killing, but makes sure the people he kills are guilty.

The story also introduces the reader to Wentworth's faithful servant Ram Singh (who's shamefully stereotyped but also a tough, strong character) and Wentworth's girlfriend, Nita Van Sloan (who is one tough cookie). These characters would regularly appear in the series and sometimes would even take over "The Spider" identity.

The plot meanders here and there in New York, and eventually leads, interestingly, to a ship loaded with chemicals, and it turns out there's a double plot. Mr. X wants to use poison gas at sea to loot a ship on its way to the US with a foreign debt payment (similar to one of Leslie Charteris' "Saint" stories, "The National Debt"), and also gas Wall Street and loot it.

And that's one of the interesting things about the series; it's seldom just gangster and thieves and racketeers. Spider villains think big; they're after huge coups and will do grandiose things to get them. (I've read a few Spider novels in the past.) Although The Spider doesn't really have a costumed identity in this novel, that does develop later, and the series will also become notorious for the lurid titles that sound like something from the weird menace pulp tradition, stuff like Emperor of Pain and Death Reign of the Vampire King and The Devil's Death Dwarves.

Is this worth reading? Definitely, for fans of the pulps. The Spider is definitely one of those pulp characters who almost defines the genre in its over-the-top battiness and sheer energy. Truly fun.

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