Monday, April 6, 2015

The Spider #7: Serpent Of Destruction

The Spider #7: Serpent Of Destruction, by Grant Stockbridge
April, 1934  Popular Publications

Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page continues to impress with yet another high-velocity installment of the Spider series. This time our fanged hero takes on a nationwide criminal syndicate which seeks to subdue the populace via cocaine and heroin, the first wave of their assault focused on the upper crust of society. Richard Wentworth, the Spider, will of course kill as many of the bastards as he can.

Using the awesomely-goofy slogan “It’s smart to be dopey,” the Bloody Serpent gang has practically ensnared the elite, once Serpent Of Destruction opens; as usual with this series, society is already on the brink of collapse before page one. And as usual, the Spider is already on the scene, sneaking into a New York penthouse in his mask and cape just as a pretty woman named Alice Cashew has been stabbed in the back, and not in the figurative sense.

She’s been killed by her boyfriend, notorious crook Big Mick Harrigan, who at the moment is assisted by another gorgeous moll, Tess Goodleigh, a sexy blonde who serves as this installment’s hot evil woman. We get another of those trademark Norvell Page opening action scenes as Wentworth blows away several crooks, Harrigan and Tess escaping; Alice’s dying words are about the “bloody serpent” and “coke.” Wentworth also saves a bound and drugged girl named Alice Puystan, whom Harrigan and Tess were also about to murder, and further planned to frame for some plot.

With its cocaine paranoia, and even a few trips to Washington, DC, Serpent Of Destruction is eerie in how it prefigures the 1980s. Wentworth is alert to the growing “dope menace,” and informs his fiance Nita van Sloan about all sorts of horrors he’s recently heard about, including a young female dope addict who became a hemophile, so enamored with the sight of blood that she sliced up a little dog! But the Bloody Serpent gang is preying on the glamorous elite of New York (and the rest of the country), and bootleggers have turned to coke and heroin now that booze is legal.

Off to DC Wentworth flies, trying to figure out who is behind the ring. Here through a government contact he learns how dire the situation is; only 160 narcotics agents are employed by the government, and 100 of them have been murdered! In another action sequence Wentworth rescues one of them, an agent who is almost dipped in lime by the sadistic members of the Bloody Serpent gang. Meanwhile, Wentworth suspects that Senator Tarleton Bragg may be the secret “chief” of the Serpent gang, but has no proof. He returns to New York.

Events continue to spiral out of control without the reader being given a pause for rest. Quickly we learn that Commissioner Kirkpatrick, not featured in the narrative as much as usual this time, has been framed on a bribery charge; the Serpent gang is so insidious and powerful that they have succeeded in setting up one of the few men who could actually stand against them. As per the series standard, Wentworth must therefore stand alone against a veritable army.  Meanwhile, the “middle class” has now fallen for the dope menace as well, Wentworth in disguise watching in horror as cab drivers and the like congregate at a bar and openly snort coke.

Amid all the chaos Wentworth decides he needs two things – one, a cane with a hidden nozzle that shoots out spider venom(!), and two, a bullet-proof metal mask. In fact, he needs a bunch of bullet-proof stuff, and after tasking his pal Professor Brownlee with working on the cane, he spends an all night session creating the armor. The mask is a metallic version of his Tito Calliepi guise, ie the look that would eventually become “the” Spider look – the hawklike nose, the lank hair, the fangs. Thusly armed and armored, Wentworth is ready to kick some true ass.

Serpent Of Destruction is even more action-packed than previous volumes I’ve read, which is really saying something; this time Page himself seems unable to keep up. Apparently Brownlee’s house in Yonkers is destroyed by the gang, but the kindly old professor only thinks to inform Wentworth of this the next day (even Wentworth asks, “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”). To keep his comrades safe, Wentworth presses a button and his posh Fifth Avenue penthouse is encased in steel; this too is but a moment’s detail that’s quickly forgotten in the ensuing maelstrom of action.

Another memorable sequence soon follows in the Rhumbana club, a Caribbean-themed nightclub recently overtaken by Big Mick Harrigan. Wentworth, as the Spider, has proclaimed that a certain crook, one he’s identified as part of the Bloody Serpent gang, will die that night. Disguised as a member of the band, Wentworth pulls on his metal mask, hits the dude in the forehead with his poisonous cane in front of the entire club (enduring a hellstorm of lead – which naturally is deflected by his armor), and escapes in the chaos!

But why the poison? Because Wentworth has realized that the only thing that truly gets through to people is the threat of torture; it’s the only thing even a hardened criminal might fear. Thus when this crook takes a full day of torment to die, the Spider is even more feared. And while Nita van Sloan continues not to be much involved (the supporting characters were apparently given much more focus once Page returned from his six-month sabbatical in 1937), off Wentworth again goes to DC.

Another confrontation with Senator Bragg, who professes to know nothing of any Bloody Serpent gang. But is it an act? Before he can decide, Wentworth is ambushed by sexpot Tess Goodleigh (what a name!), a known Serpent member, and one who has lead many narcotics agents to their doom. The woman proves to be an eternal thorn in the Spider’s side, even magically appearing in another sequence, in New York, as Wentworth in the Spider guise confronts Harrigan in his office at the Rhumbana.

Wentworth returns to New York. More action, particularly in a nice sequence where Kirkpatrick himself helps out, the two men ambushing a convoy bringing drugs into the city. Here Wentworth does not wear a disguise, but it’s obvious Kirkpatrick knows he’s the Spider; the top cop even taunts Wentworth that there’s no Spider seal left on the gangsters he’s killed in the firefight. But off Wentworth rushes to another big setpiece, and right on cue Nita is kidnapped. Per the norm in these early books, she serves no more purpose than to be abducted and eventually saved.

But the doom Nita is threatened with is pretty entertaining; the Bloody Serpent Chief, that dastard, calls Wentworth and tells him that, if the Spider does not join the gang (all criminal masterminds are aware that Wentworth is the Spider, you see), then Nita will be forcibly hooked on dope! To prove his threat, the Chief sends Wentworth the next day a photo of an obviously-drugged Nita, with her “hot mouth” and “half-closed eyes” betraying her possible wantonization – the Chief alludes to the fact that, once hooked on the drug, Nita will be much less “exclusive” and open to “the casual friendship of other men.”

Now our hero is on a rampage; crooks are killed right and left, sometimes so quickly that the reader doesn’t even have a chance to register it, like when Wentworth hits Big Mick Harrigan with his venom-filled cane. But it all leads to a somewhat-muddled finale where Wentworth pretends to agree to join the Bloody Serpent gang, and he and the Chief arrange to meet at Wentworth’s Long Island estate (which also factored into the finale of #3: Wings Of The Black Death). There, in a meeting with all of the Chief’s minions, Wentworth will openly join the gang, and Nita will be returned to him.

When the expected trap is sprung, the Chief blithely telling his people to gun Wentworth down, our hero is saved by a hidden sniper, who shoots at vials of nitrogylcerin Wentworth has hidden about his large study. (We learn later that Kirkpatrick is the hidden marksman.) Here in the chaos Page delivers one of those nonsensical “big reveals” where it turns out the Chief isn’t Senator Bragg at all, but some dude pretending to be him – oh, and Tess Goodleigh turns out to be a deep-undercover secret agent!

What’s missing from Serpent Of Destruction is the usual hyperkinetic violence of the Spider series, as the Bloody Serpent plot doesn’t reach the catastrophic levels of the typical villains this series was known for. Indeed, their “victims” seem rather happy, as Wentworth notices while in disguise in a club, watching in disgust as members of the middle class happily snort cocaine! Also, the supporting characters are given short shrift, particularly Nita van Sloan.

But that’s not to say it isn’t an enjoyable installment. In fact, I haven’t read a bad Spider novel yet!


Grant said...

I of course usually don't like that tradition of the villainess who isn't REALLY a villainess, but Tess Goodleigh still sounds like an interesting character.

horrox said...

"Wantonization" - nice!