Monday, December 5, 2022

The Spider #28: The Mayor Of Hell

The Spider #28: The Mayor Of Hell, by Grant Stockbridge
January, 1936  Popular Publications

Even though it doesn’t feature the typical supervillain of the series, or much in the way of supernatural thrills, or even an appearance of the titular Spider himself, this 28th volume of The Spider is one of my favorites yet in the series, Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page turning in a novel that has more emotional resonance than typical for a pulp yarn. He also manages to hit on some relevance with our modern day, which is incredible considering this pulp yarn was published 86 years ago. 

In fact I found myself downright moved by a few sequences in The Mayor Of Hell, and midway through was prepared to declare it the best Spider I’d yet read. But unfortunately the story kept going, and as was his wont Page began to stuff the plot with too many disconnected action scenes. I agree with Zwolf that Joseph Rosenberger must have been a Spider fan, as there are a lot of similarities here. At one point in the book, during a firefight no less, Richard “The Spider” Wentworth starts boasting about how he kills, and his words could be put directly into the mouth of Richard Camellion. And hell I just realized, both characters have the first name “Richard.” (Which happens to be my middle name! But that has nothing to do with anything whatsoever.) 

This one starts off a sort of trilogy, too. Long story short, in this one Wentworth, who is (once again?) publicly exposed as the Spider, drops his guise and becomes “Corporal Death,” vowing to take down the so-called “Mayor of Hell,” who has, wouldja believe, united all the criminals of New York into one faction. Indeed, the worst villain Wentworth has ever faced! One thing to note, though: there’s no Corporal Death costume. Wentworth basically just takes up this new crimefighting name, arms himself with a special knife, but otherwise goes about in his regular clothes, without even a mask. So the costume factor is totally absent in The Mayor Of Hell; even the titular villain doesn’t wear a costume. He appears in one sequence and his schtick is he hides behind a bunch of mirrored lights. 

But like I said, whereas you’d think the loss of the typical Spider trappings would result in a misfire of an installment, it’s as if Page set the bar higher for himself with this one. There are some moments where Wentworth displays the sterling courage (stirring courage?) that Page has only hinted at in the past. And as usual Page puts his hero through the wringer; I mean The Mayor Of Hell opens with Wentworth getting machine-gunned in the back, chest, etc. But like a Terminator he essentially walks it off, recuperating for a few months in bed and wholly recovering. 

That’s another thing that differentiates The Mayor Of Hell: it takes place over a broader section of time, encompassing about three months. We learn at the outset that it’s been “six months” since the Spider has seen any action – meaning sixth months after #27: Emperor Of The Yellow Death? However Page drops the ball on this; the guy was typing so fast that it was only expected he’d make the occasional goof. Late in the novel Wentworth, as ever going undercover, appropriates the name of a hood he killed in Chicago “two months ago.” This does not jibe with the six month timeline of no action established in the opening…and for that matter, Wentworth spends two months in bed after the opening action scene. 

Well anyway, who cares about such trivialities. It’s still all about the action, which ultimately undoes the novel. At least in my opinion. This is unfortunate because Page really amps up the manly drama in the opening half. He already puts the screws to his character in the opening pages; Wentworth is relaxing in his lush penthouse and playing his Stradivarius when he’s suddenly attacked by a veritable army of subgun-toting thugs. There’s even a guy across the street hammering away with a heavy gun and a plane dropping bombs. The place is destroyed, Wentworth smashes his precious Stradivarius in an act of self-defense, and as mentioned our hero is shot more times than Fifty Cent. (“Why, good God, he was being killed!”) 

Page was too harried to worry over niceties like convenient plotting or coincidences, so an escaping Wentworth just happens to fall into the graces of a kindly old house robber named O’Brien who takes him in and nurses him to health. How you’d nurse a guy who has been machine gunned is beyond me. But months pass and Wentworth discovers he has been exposed as the Spider in the papers; what’s more, his erstwhile companions have been tossed in prison for abetting a criminal and Nita Van Sloan has only escaped jail after a lawsuit for the “crime” of defending herself against a crook. 

Again, folks, the connotations with today are just off the charts. For Page soon reveals that The Mayor Of Hell takes place in a surreal world in which every cop is a criminal and all the sinners are saints. Wentworth learns about this via a newspaper – an outdated paper from a month before, when he was comatose, because now all the papers are run by the bad guys and “the news” is nothing but propaganda for the corrupt ruling party(!!): 

Now friends I am going to try hard to restrain myself and not venture into my world-famous political musings, because I know some of you don’t like it. (“I deride your truth-handling abilities!” – Sideshow Bob) I promised I would stop, and I intend to uphold that promise.  Of course I made the promise like seven years ago, but better late than never.  And hell, I could even be wrong in my sentiments...I mean, those starving people in the crime-ridden dystopia of Solyent Green seemed happy...  But if you will indulge me one (perhaps) final time...just take a look at that excerpt. Change “new United States Senator” to “new President” and “Governor of the State” to “former President” and you basically have the gist of the political spectrum in modern-day America. Hell, Page somehow even manages to use the word “trump!” 

Page develops gripping drama here with Wentworth committing himself to the fight; despite being branded as a criminal by the papers and all his followers thrown in prison by a corrupt government, Wentworth will not relent. (That sound you hear is me clearing my throat in a meaningful fashion.) Apropos of nothing Wentworth dubs himself “Corporal Death” and he unites O’Brien, O’Brien’s pretty young daughter, and the last good cop on the New York force (the fiance of O’Brien’s daughter) as “the Long Knives.” This is a great scene where Wentworth hands over each of the men a long knife and announces, “We must become killers.” Then the girl, Kathleen, demands her own knife, much to the surprise of her dad and fiance – and of course Wentworth has a knife for her, too! Sure, it’s “smaller” than the knives he gave the men, but still – a cool scene of these hounded innocents making the solemn decision to take on an enemy that vastly outnumbers them. One might even venture to say that they are determined to make the city great again. Of course I wouldn’t say that, as I’m trying hard not to offend any sensitive readers out there. 

But the helluva it is, Page does absolutely nothing with “Corporal Death and the Long Knives.” They don’t even share an action scene together, and as ever Page just focuses on his hero throughout. Wentworth, despite having his own team this time, still operates in a solo capacity. I was a let little down by this, as Page does not build on the gripping drama he establishes with the formation of the Long Knives. However that’s not to say that Page doesn’t deliver more emotional content – anyone who reads The Spider knows how we are often told of the love Wentworth and Nita have for one another, how Nita will sacrifice anything for the man she loves and vice versa, but this time Page actually shows it. 

Wentworth, as ever beleaguered and incognito, poses at one point as a street performer, playing a cheap violin. Nita just happens to pass him by in a taxi and rushes out to watch. Though she gives no outward indication – as a former acquaintance of Wentworth she is of course being shadowed by the gestapo that works for the corrupt new government – it is clear she knows this bum is really Wentworth in disguise, if only due to his playing. This is probably the most dramatic scene yet in The Spider. But the only problem is Page again undoes his own effort, with Wentworth and Nita rounded up and taken away, with our hero gaining a brief audience with the Mayor of Hell. After yet another action scene, Nita is again removed from the narrative. 

In fact The Mayor Of Hell becomes increasingly fractured as Page hops from one action setpiece to another. However Page doesn’t waste our time with the usual “secret identity mystery” of the titular villain. From the get-go Wentworth learns that a corrupt politican named Hoey has taken over New York, and he’s clearly “in league” with the Mayor Of Hell. If you work for Hoey, you work for the Mayor, and that includes all the city’s cops, who as mentioned now exist merely to protect the interests of the rulers. This leads to an awesome speech Wentworth gives to some New Yorkers on the street – the words just as relevant in 2022 as in this fictional 1936: 

What concerns me is that Page doesn’t just hit on relevance with our modern day, he also manages to predict where we may be headed. There is a part where Wentworth is walking around Times Square, all this taking place before Christmas day, and he muses to himself: 

Also, note the cross on the guy’s face in the illustration. Whereas the Spider’s schtick was branding an image of his namesake on the forehead of his victims, Corporal Death is a bit more sadistic – he carves a cross on the faces of his enemies. While he never uses the term, Page basically turns our hero into a terrorist in The Mayor Of Hell, or perhaps rabble-rouser would be as good a term. For Wentworth really acts in this capacity, going around the city and stirring up the masses against Hoey and his corrupt ruling party. Wentworth knows that elections cannot save them: “They would never succeed against [Hoey] in the crooked ballotings.” In a novel filled with relevance, this sole comment has the greatest relevance of all

But like I keep repeating, Page just squanders all this gravitas with incessant action and plot digressions. He also works in more coincidence; while in yet another disguise, Wentworth just happens to come across none other than Stanley Kirkpatrick, who is about to perpetrate his own terrorist action against Hoey. It’s all very much in the vein of other Spider yarns, with copious action taking precedence over any plotting, but this time it irritated me because the setup was so well done. I mean I really wanted to read about Corporal Death leading his Long Knives in commando assaults on the Mayor’s army. Instead, the Long Knives stay off-page for the duration of the novel, and it’s Wentworth going about in various disguises as he gets in one-off firefights. 

As mentioned, The Mayor Of Hell kicks off a trilogy. While the book climaxes with the expected outing of the main villain’s identity, and security finally being returned to the city (until next time), there’s a cliffhanger that Wentworth is still a wanted man and must continue to hide. Also he has not reunited with his erstwhile companions by novel’s end. Overall though, The Mayor Of Hell, at least for the first half, was one of my favorite volumes yet…who knows how great it could have been if Norvell Page had been able to focus solely on it instead of all the other yarns he had to write that month.


Unknown said...

This was indeed a good one, but it was part one of two; next month's "Slaves of the Murder Syndicate" is the concluding novel. "Green Globes of Death", next in line, was about the return of the Fly... completely different story.

I think you're possibly confusing it with the later 1938 "Black Police" trilogy, where the bad guys take over the government of New York State... "City that Paid to Die", "Spider at Bay", "Scourge of the Black Legions".

Long-time reader, first time commenter, always appreciating your reviews and insights, Joe, whether I agreed or not.


Johny Malone said...

Those days I found a translation of an Captain Fury's adventure, known as The Skipper. From what I could read, he's a violent version of Doc Savage: