Monday, March 2, 2015

The Spider #3: Wings Of The Black Death

The Spider #3: Wings Of The Black Death, by Grant Stockbridge
December, 1933  Popular Publications

The third volume of The Spider is notable because it was the first to be written by Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page, who would go on to write the majority of the ensuing 115 volumes. Having read some of Page’s later volumes, I was curious how different this first one would be. Surprisingly, it’s almost identical to what came later: a breathless excursion into bloody action and chaos.

One thing that does separate Wings Of The Black Death from the others I’ve read is that it seems Page put a little more care into this storyline, at least insofar as how the villain of the piece is outed. Whereas other volumes throw a lame “reveal” on the reader in the final pages, some barely-mentioned character unveiled as the main villain, this time Page appears to put more thought into the mystery. But we aren’t talking Arthur Conan Doyle here – this is still first and foremost an action pulp, designed to be speedily read and quickly forgotten.

But anyway, in his first Spider novel Norvell Page hits the ground running; within the first few pages Richard “The Spider” Wentworth is already shooting someone point-blank in the forehead, then a few pages later he’s shooting down a dog, and then a few pages after that some little kid is dying horrifically (and graphically) of Bubonic Plague. There are no tentative steps as the author attempts to familiarize himself with the characters, the audience, or the genre; from first page to last Wings of the Black Death delivers the same blunt impact as the rest of Page’s Spider oeuvre.

It’s interesting to note that Page uses characters and situations that had been created by original writer RTM Scott, without attempting to change the scenarios Scott had laid out. What I’m trying to say is that Page never changed the setup very much; I mean, Nita van Sloan started out as Richard Wentworth’s fiance, and she stayed that way for the next ten years. Similarly, Scott had Commisioner Stanley Kirkpatrick and Wentworth be friends, even though the commissioner suspected Wentworth of being the Spider – in fact Kirkpatrick apparently knew he was – yet he was duty-bound not to act on it until he had verifiable evidence. Page never changed this, either.

Scott only wrote the first two volumes of the series, and there’s apparently even debate if it was the same RTM Scott who wrote the second volume as the one who wrote the first; Scott had a son of the same name, who was also a pulp writer. So to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “RTM Scott, or another hack of the same name” wrote the first two volumes of the Spider, and by all accounts they were more tepid, mystery-focused yarns, lacking the psychotic, violent spark of Norvell Page’s work.

But Scott(s) created the characters, situations, and setup, and Page ran with it; within the first few pages Wentworth and Kirkpatrick are bantering at a social event, the commissioner implying that, now that Wentworth has returned from a trip to Europe, so too might the Spider be returning to the city. (Again, it’s bluntly obvious Kirkpatrick knows!) Meanwhile Wentworth has hurried here after taking care of business in that very personage, though this early in the saga the Spider dresses more like the Shadow; ie, none of the fangs and “fright wig” stuff. Instead he wears a mask over his eyes with a black veil covering the lower half of his face.

The plot is overly complex at the outset, but never fear as it soon straightens out into more of an action blitz. At any rate, Wentworth has decided to investigate a muddled plot about forged bonds that were unwittingly used by a girl named Virginia Doeg, whose dog soon thereafter died of Bubonic Plague, aka the Black Death. Somehow Wentworth knows there’s more to this story, and thus in the opening pages he’s already putting a hole in the head of some hapless, gun-wielding pawnbroker; thousands more would die at Wentworth’s hands in the coming decade.

Now begins a veritable war between Wentworth and Kirkpatrick, one because Wentworth is determined to visit Virginia Doeg, despite her being in police custody, and two because someone is killing New York cops…and putting the seal of the Spider on their foreheads. This leads to strange bits where Kirkpatrick will snarl at Wentworth, ready to kill him on sight…gullibly believing that the Spider, despite his “services for the city over the years,” has become a cop killer. Yet Wentworth has seen one of these seals, and knows them to be fakes – someone, as will become standard in Page’s work, is setting up the Spider. And now the whole world is against him.

From meager leads Wentworth eventually comes upon the whole Black Death scheme, which shows itself early with a horror-esque scene where a little boy and girl are dosed with an advanced strain of the disease…by a cute little puppy! A masked villain calling himself “The Black Death” is now extorting wealthy people; pay up, or you and your loved ones suffer from the Bubonic Plague. Wentworth is able to shoot the dog, but too late to save the kids, and Page delivers an unforgettable bit where we are informed of the grotesque deaths the children suffer.

Meanwhile, someone’s still killing cops and branding them with the fake Spider seal. There are several Wentworth/Kirkpatrick confrontations throughout Wings Of The Black Death, with the cops more focused on bringing down the Spider than saving citizens from the random outbreaks of Black Death which are now occurring throughout New York. These confrontations reach their climax with Kirkpatrick arresting Wentworth – a scene which has the commissioner finally discovering the hidden compartment of Wentworth’s lighter, which contains the Spider seal. However due to overly-described mumbo-jumbo, the seal disappears before Kirkpatrick can see it.

Wentworth then pulls the first of his escapes from the police; many more such incidents would follow in the coming years. This one’s pretty impressive, with Wentworth taking the wheel of the police car taking him to prison and wrenching it, sending the car off a bridge and into the Hudsdon. In the aftermath everyone thinks Wentworth – and thus the Spider – is dead. Even poor Nita thinks he’s dead, and for a stretch of the book she becomes the star of the show, with Wentworth well out of the picture.

Nita is just as resourceful as her fiance, using her wits to figure out what Wentworth already has – that someone is spreading the plague through pigeons. Out in Long Island Nita manages to get herself caught, by ruffians who work for the Black Death – who, per pulp standards, is a masked fiend, his face covered by a black veil. The thugs openly discuss raping Nita, though Page glosses over it a bit; one element missing from Wings Of The Black Death by the way is any sort of sexual element. Also missing is the hot evil woman who tempts Wentworth, another element which will be much used in later Page novels. Nita is the only female here, other than rarely-seen Virginia Doeg.

Anyway, Nita is tied up in a cave…only to be discovered by a still-alive Wentworth, who has been hiding throughout. This is all after a big fake blowout Wentworth and Nita had in a restaurant, to fool people into thinking Wentworth was leaving town; a ruse rendered moot by his later faked death. And also I’ve neglected to mention Wentworth’s random fights with various Black Death thugs, including a big firefight in a burning building. But the reader of The Spider already knows that he’s in for an action onslaught.

Wentworth is also captured a few times in this novel, including here in the end, where both he and Nita are tied up in the cave, with a convoluted death awaiting them. Nita has a loyal Great Dane, Apollo, given to her by Wentworth back in the first volume or something (the dog was fated to die in one of the later Page novels, only to be accidentally brought back by Emile Tepperman, one of the authors who occasionally filled in for Page); the Black Death has drugged the dog, and placed a water bowl filled with Bubonic Plague near him. The idea is that the dog will wake, drink the water, and then be called to his owners, lapping them with the plague.

Long story short, this is a stirring scene in which Nita again displays her bravery, calling for the dog despite Wentworth’s objections – and the guaranteed death which will follow. (It’s all rendered moot with the deus ex machina reveal that one of the Black Death’s goons accidentally spilled the water bowl!) The climax seens Wentworth and Nita in a biplane, Nita flying while Wentworth blasts at the Black Death with a machine gun. The final confrontation is even better, with Wentworth strangling the villain with his bare hands!

“Only” a thousand people die of the Bubonic Plague – a hefty number, but paltry given the widespread death of later volumes. However the Black Death incurs Wentworth’s wrath, and he’s more driven to kill this particular villain than in the other Spider novels I’ve yet read. But “driven” sums up Richard Wentworth, who blazes through this novel, killing thugs, escaping the cops, faking his death, and even finding the time to madly play his violin for a few hours.

Summing up, Wings Of The Black Death was another entertaining, bloody, action-filled entry in the Spider saga, and it was very interesting to see that Norvell Page already had command of his craft in his first contribution to the series.

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