The Spider #13: Builders Of The Black Empire, by Grant Stockbridge
October, 1934 Popular Publications
Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page brings The Spider back to the ground after the previous fantastical volumes, with an installment that sort of retreads the one in #10: The Corpse Cargo only minus the horror elements. Indeed Builders Of The Black Empire (titled “Builders of the Dark Empire” in the story itself) is mostly just a standard action tale, lacking many of the elements that make this series so fascinating.
The Spider’s already on the hunt when we meet him; Richard Wentworth is onboard a tramp steamer somewhere near Florida, disguised as a crewman. We learn that Wentworth began researching this latest caper a week ago, hunting the papers for anything amiss. There he found that some steamers were not returning to port in New York; Wentworth instantly suspected nefarious a-doings. And sure enough Page delivers the first of many, many action scenes, with Wentworth’s steamer attacked by airplanes – turns out the various steamers haven’t returned to port because they’ve been waylaid by “piracy by airplane.”
So yes, despite the recency of The Corpse Cargo, this volume again sees Wentworth up against modern-day pirates, but rather than the sadistic ghouls of that previous installment (not to mention their depraved female leader), this time we are presented with a much less memorable cast of villains: a bunch of Mexicans who seem to have walked out of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Sadly, they will prove to be the sole villains – well, them and a French guy who is a known revolutionary or something, and he isn’t much more memorable, and is more so annoying than anything.
Wentworth, who sneaked off the steamer when it was ordered to dump it’s cargo of nitro on an uninhabited island named Belulah Key, watches in disgust as the planes swoop in and destroy the boat, killing everyone on board. Wentworth manages to get on one of the planes that come to collect the loot, and plants a bomb on one of them. He hijacks another plane, taking the men aboard captive as their comrades in the rest of the squadron blow up. But Wentworth blunders, falling into their trap – the first of several times he does so this volume – and he is taken prisoner by the pirates, not even a dozen pages in.
Here we meet the boring leader, Miguel Oriano, a redheaded Mexican of mixed parentage; be prepared for lots of racist invective courtesy Wentworth, calling Oriano “half-breed” and whatnot. Sure, the Spider’s trying to rile the guy, to make him clumsy, but at the same time it is weird in today’s world to read a hero spouting such things. Again, I’m not judging the sentiments of the past, just reporting. But in true cliched fashion Oriano is a big lout who carries around a big whip, and soon enough Wentworth’s to be hitched to the post for his own whipping.
The Spider’s escape is the goriest part of the book; he steals Oriano’s whip and slashes one of the leader’s “peons” with it, knocking out the dude’s eyeball! From there it’s an escape back to New York, where we get the details on what led Wentworth to this case. Turns out while slumming in disguise in waterfront bars he heard notorious revolutionist Remarque D’Enry saying something about a revolution in America. Well, Wentworth figures D’Enry is somehow involved with this airplane piracy deal, so he begins to hunt the Frenchman down.
As per the norm, here the plot is expanded a bit with various New York notables coming into the story – as usual, people Wentworth is familiar with, due to his highfalutin lifestyle. Chief among them is big blond Scott Haillie, a diplomat who was once known for his carousing days. Wentworth – with ever-suffering Nita at his side – spots Haillie in a posh restaurant, dining with D’Enry, wealthy Spaniard Don Esteban, the don’s son Andre, and the don’s lovely daughter Carmencita. Haillie and Andre have a grudge, and next thing you know the two men are engaged in a duel, with Wentworth and D’Enry acting as their respective seconds.
Builders Of The Black Empire is more along the lines of a pulp mystery than previous books; during the duel someone tries to take a shot at Andre, and the would-be assassin lies that Wentworth hired him. Meanwhile men in masks recently came to Wentworth’s penthouse, perhaps abducing Ram Singh, who has disappeared (the leader of the gang humorously refers to Wentworth as “boy friend” twice!), and Wentworth suspects that this plus the lying assassin means that Don Esteban is setting him up. The don you see is Wentworth’s chief suspect now, given the island kingdom he rules off the coast of the Yucatan, a perfect haven for a pirate army.
Wentworth suffers more in this novel than any other I’ve yet read, which is really saying something. He and Hallie are attacked by D’Enry and a pirate crew, and even though Wentworth captures them and ties them up, D’Enry gets loose – and shoots Wentworth in the friggin’ chest! Our hero plunges into the water…and comes to a few weeks later, having been fished out of the water by ever-loyal Jackson and taken to the hospital. Wentworth convalasces for a whopping five weeks – he was shot in the lung, we learn – and through it all Nita tells him the pirates have stopped their attacks.
Turns out though she’s lying, not that Wentworth blames her. No, the nation is close to revolution now, with seven thousand innocent people having been killed on the seas by the pirates. A “great Eastern nation” is suspected of being behind the attack (but in reality is being framed by the pirates, whose plan turns out to be to cause a revolution in the US so they can sell their loot freely, or something), and Wentworth in wheelchair watches as an innocent old man from that country is almost torn to shreds by an angry mob outside the hospital. Wentworth whips out a gun and shoots some of them down! But it turns out the mob really is being pushed by D’Enry’s pirates, and there follows another violent scene where guys toting shotguns attack Wentworth in his hospital. He manages to take away one of their shotguns and blows away one of them point-blank in an elevator.
There follows one of Norvell Page’s patented insane sequences, and the highlight of the book, where Wentworth gets to the consulate ahead of the rioting mob – the pirates in their ranks pushing them there to tear the place apart. Having put on his “Tito Caliepi” costume of the old face and lank hair (and we’re informed he hasn’t worn this disguise for a while), Wentworth, still in his wheelchair, staves off the mob with nothing more than his voice and a sort of “Spider light,” clearly the inspiration for the later Bat Light. Gunning down the occasional pirate in the mob (“Death to those who preach death!” he cackles like a madman), Wentworth succeeds in turning back the rioters from the consulate, in a scene almost as crazy as the “Silent Night” singalong in the later #15: The Red Death Rain.
Wentworth is lured to Don Esteban’s island near Florida by a letter from long-missing Ram Singh. But he and Jackson are promptly captured; turns out Singh is working for the pirates. Jackson mutters that it was only a matter of time before the “heathen” showed his true colors, anyway! But no fear – Ram Singh is only pretending, and he and the lovely Carmencita free Wentworth and Jackson. Next Wentworth impersonates Don Esteban, routing the pirates from “his” island and engaging Oriano in a long chase back up the mainland. Next we have that aerial fiction pulp readers must’ve loved, with Wentworth stealing a pirate plane and blowing up a field filled with them, thus preventing their planned aerial attack on Washington.
The finale occurs in the capitol, with Wentworth having learned of an attack on the Washington Monument. But instead of big action it’s more of a suspense vibe, with all of the characters converging here and Wentworth, with a bomb ticking somewhere beneath them, trying to figure out which one is the secret leader of the pirates. Frustratingly, we don’t get to see the annoying D’Enry gunned down – instead he’s killed by another character, and off-page at that! But the finale is at least thrilling, with Wentworth finding and defusing the bomb with mere seconds to spare. This is another of those great scenes with Nita standing steadfast behind Wentworth, despite the fact that she could’ve easily run away to safety.
Overall Builders Of The Black Empire was too standard for me, and certainly was my least favorite volume yet. But Page still writes with the usual fevered passion, and he puts Wentworth through a particular hell this time out – so what that Wentworth spends the last quarter of the novel acting like his usual self, despite the fact that he was bedridden and half-dead just a few pages before? (We also get the minor and passing detail this time that Wentworth carries “stimulants” in his pocket – purhaps this is the secret behind the Spider’s single-minded determination? He’s just hopped up on coke!)