Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Spider #75: Satan's Murder Machines

The Spider #75: Satan's Murder Machines, by Grant Stockbridge
December, 1939  Popular Publications

The Spider returns in an installment published a few years after the previous volume I read, Death Reign Of The Vampire King, though not much has changed – he’s still thrust into a relentless sequence of chases, firefights, and life-threatening traps, all while separated from his usual supporting cast of characters, author Norvell Page (ie “Grant Stockbridge”) showing his protagonist little mercy.

The first novel collected in Baen’s 2008 mass market paperback Robot Titans Of Gotham, Satan’s Murder Machines sees hero Richard “The Spider” Wentworth going up against another villain with a name that would one day become associated with another character: The Iron Man. Unlike the later Marvel superhero, this one’s a murderous psychopath who commands a legion of almost-indestructable robots that are tearing apart Manhattan as the novel begins.

The Spider’s already on the scene, this time wearing a mask and veil, so I guess sort of like the original magazine cover depictions of the character mixed with the Shadow’s look? Wentworth has more problems than just the robots, which have torn down a few buildings and killed several people – he’s being framed by whoever’s behind them, framed as both a thief and a murderer. This leads to the novel’s central confrontation: Wentworth versus Commissioner Kirkpatrick, aka Wentworths’ best and only “friend.”

It’s pretty obvious that Kirkpatrick knows Wentworth is the Spider – I’m currently reading an earlier (and crazier) volume of the series, The Red Death Rain, and Page basically states as much in the narrative – but throughout the entire ten-year run of the series it was a constant question if the commissioner would ever get proof of it. As he constantly reminds everyone, as soon as he gets verifiable evidence of who the Spider is, that man will be arrested promptly.

Yet despite all this, Wentworth and Kirkpatrick are pals. Not that you’d know it this volume. While the robots are tearing up the city, Wentworth is busy being shuttled around by Kirkpatrick and his cops, the commissioner almost outright accusing Wentworth of being a murderer. Long story short, someone’s planted stolen artwork in Wentworth’s sprawling penthouse, and also one of his pistols has been stolen, used by this same perpetrator to murder someone.

The opening half features a handful of entertaining scenes in which Wentworth either uses guile or trickery to get around Kirkpatrick and his men, like when he recovers his pistol from the crime scene before the cops can spot it. More entertaining though is the increasingly-hostile banter between Wentworth and Kirkpatrick; no two men could remain “friends” after the amount of vitriol they pour upon one another. Standard with the “series reset” which occurs after every installment, though, I’m sure they’ll be back to being pals by the next volume.

Meanwhile the robots! Early in the novel, while in his Spider guise, Wentworth encounters them. While we never get a good idea how tall the things are, they are sufficiently bulky and massive enough to cause terror in their wake. They also have glowing eyes, and teeth which are memorably compared to shovels. They stampede over everything in their wake, nearly killing Wentworth and his assistant, Ronald Jackson, who served as a sergeant to Wentworth’s major in World War I.

Wentworth soon suspects that these “robots” really house men inside, especially when one of them begins to speak, the booming voice projecting from a grill on the chest. Eventually Wentworth learns he’s correct; these robots are more so powered suits of armor, with men inside them, yet even after this is revealed they’re still referred to as “robots.” Anyway per series standards how exactly these robot suits were created is never explained; Page is more focused on action and thrills.

And he succeeds -- Satan’s Murder Machines is a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it even more than Death Reign Of The Vampire King. One of the main reasons for this is that the supporting characters get more of a chance to shine, this time. In particular Nita Van Sloan, Wentworth’s fiance – there are a few scenes where she not only saves Wentworth, but poses as the Spider herself, usually so as to distract the cops. This includes a great moment where Kirkpatrick and his cops are escorting Wentworth out of a building, and are shocked by the sudden appearance of the Spider, who shoots over their heads and thus gives Wentworth opportunity toe scape.

The Wentworth/Nita moments provide a better understanding of why these two stay together, perennially “about to be married” but never taking the plunge due to Wentworth’s commitment to fight crime. But Page makes it clear that Nita is the same as her man, just as (psychotically?) devoted to taking on criminals, even if it means “true happiness” must be curtailed. Like her fiance, Nita even enjoys donning disguises; in this installment she takes on an apparently-frequent guise of a streetwalker, which leads to some humorous banter between her and Wentworth in a bar.

But really Satan’s Murder Machines is Wentworth’s show; while Nita, Jackson, and “Hindustani” colleague Ram Singh make scattered appearances in the opening half, Wentworth is relegated to working alone, mostly due to his wanted status by the police. Also, Jackson gets arrested for moving a body, so as to help foil the scheme to frame Wentworth, and Nita gets captured after drugging Wentworth and, once again, going out to do the Spider’s work on her own.

This is just another highlight in a novel filled with them; Wentworth midway through gets in an underwater battle with a few robots in the East River, trying to track them to their hideout. He manages to destroy one, but due to the freezing cold (the novel occurs in December, the same month it was published) he’s come down with the flu. Refusing to allow her man to go back underwater to find the robot shell, Nita instead slips our boy a mickey and then goes out to do it herself!

But as mentioned, she gets caught, and now Wentworth works alone again, trying to free her from the minions of the Iron Man. Speaking of which, the villain gets little narrative time, and in fact isn’t even described. There’s a part where Wentworth is fighting a few robots, one of whom is stated as being the Iron Man, but how Wentworth knows this is not mentioned. Is his suit of armor larger, or differently colored? Page doesn’t inform us, but then he was banging out about a million words a month, so we can forgive him if he sometimes misses little details.

Speaking of costumes, Wentworth wears a variety of them this time, from the “mask and veil” getup to the more-standard Spider disguise of the hunched back, lank hair, and fangs. I do love his thoroughness, though; when in a late sequence where he takes out one of the robots and appropriates the armor, Wentworth stamps his spider seal on the forehead, so everyone will know that this particular robot is none other than the Spider!

One thing missing this volume is the OTT violence of the series; since his opponents are armored robots, Wentworth is unable to blow their faces off as per usual. He does still find ways to kill them, either by ramming cement trucks into the robots or electrocuting them. Innocents still suffer, though, with men, women, and children being torn apart by the marauding robots, in particular a part where they destroy a tenement building. Here Page goes to the trouble of describing a woman and her child meeting a horrible fate at the metal hands and feet of the robots.

The novel is filled with scenes of Wentworth narrowly evading the robots, destroying one or two of them if he can, and keeping others from danger, in particular Kirkpatrick and his cops. There’s a great part where Wentworth, again as the Spider, poses briefly as a cop, commandeering the bullhorn in Kirkpatrick’s car to call off the cops, who otherwise would be destroyed by the robots. This climaxes with Kirkpatrick and the Spider meeting face-to-face; I got a chuckle how Kirkpatrick immediately went for his gun and snapped off a shot. Cops in the ‘30s didn’t mess around.

Wentworth pulls off many superhuman feats, from wrestling robots beneath the Hudson to shooting through the finger-muzzle of one of them, blowing up its entire arm. He does all of this while still clearing his name (thus leading to a truce with Kirkpatrick) and figuring out who the Iron Man is. Unlike what I assume is the standard norm, this particular secret identity seems to be at least a little planned out, with Page introducing the person midway through the tale and spending an entire sequence with him. It’s my understanding that most of these “surprise reveals” turn out to just be random characters briefly mentioned.

This was another fast-paced Spider yarn which barely allowed the reader to catch his breath, plunging Richard Wentworth into one confrontation after another. What’s most surprising then is how Norvell Page is still able to shoehorn in some fun dialog and memorable character exchanges amid all of the chaos; there are even minor references to earlier adventures, which no doubt would be pleasing to long-time readers.

The other Page novel collected in Robot Titans Of Gotham by the way is the first and only volume of an obscure 1939 pulp “series” titled The Octopus (which coincidentally or not happened to be the name of the villain in the 1938 Spider serial The Spiders Web). It’s my understanding this novel was only co-written by Page. At any rate I haven’t read it yet, and will instead move on to more Spider volumes.

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