Wednesday, February 8, 2023

The Spider #29: Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate

The Spider #29: Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate, by Grant Stockbridge
February, 1936  Popular Publications

Picking up two months after the previous volume, this 29th installment of The Spider again finds our hero, Richard “The Spider” Wentworth, struggling against a national threat pretty much all on his own. While last time Wentworth dropped his Spider guise, this time his entire existence as The Spider is called into question, with Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page instilling the yarn with more emotional depth than the previous volumes. 

That’s not to say Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate isn’t the typical Page onslaught of action, though. As with the previous installments, a lot of the good stuff is squandered by frequent detours into time-consuming action scenes. But there is a lot of good, character-driven stuff here, more so than any of the earlier books, or at least anything I can recall in them. In particular Wentworth’s relationship with Nita Van Sloan is really put into the spotlight, with Nita’s ever-staunch acceptance of Wentworth’s life as the Spider put to the ultimate test. 

Last we saw Wentworth he was on the run, outed in the papers as the Spider but still fighting crime as Corporal Death. Now, two months later, a near-penniless Wentworth (his vast assets frozen due to his being a wanted man and all) lives in the Underworld, disguised with a “face quite altered…by puckered scars…as if by a richocheting bullet.” His plight, as ever, is dire, and his best friend/worst enemy Commissioner Kirkpatrick still has the cops looking for him, despite the fact that last volume Wentworth helped Kirkpatrick defeat the (latest) supervillain who threatened to take over New York. Curiously the Corporal Death gimmick is completely dropped this time, at least so far as Wentworth goes; the guise is only mentioned in passing halfway through the novel, then very late in the game another character takes up the mantle. 

There isn’t much pickup from The Mayor Of Hell, though. The way things go, there’s already a new menace Wentworth must deal with; true to form this one opens with Wentworth just happening to witness some latest criminal act, as a carful of men ambush a lone girl and point a “queer gun” at her. This thing fires darts, and this will be the volume’s villain gimmick, or at least one of them – as the narrative tells us, “Almost always, these geniuses of crime invented some new weapon.” The darts make their victims go nuts, spastically dancing as they (presumably) shit themselves and die; Wentworth will soon be calling this weapon “the dancing death.” But that’s not enough for Page, and later in the book he has the criminals using a Dissolver bomb that, well, dissolves people. 

As for the villains, this time for the most part they are Indians, apparently of the Thuggee cult, though Page doesn’t do too much with this. Their boss is the lamely-named Chief, who just wears a hood…but then this supervillain’s gimmick is he never really appears in person, each hooded “Chief” Wentworth encounters turning out to be a decoy. After failing to save the girl in the opening scene, Wentworth gets in a running battle against the Chief and his Thuggee minions, with as ever the fate of the entire nation ultimately coming into play. But as if that weren’t enough, Wentworth also has to avoid the cops, who are really closing in on him – not to mention Nita Van Sloan, who sets Wentworth up for the trap! 

The stuff with Nita has kind of bored me in previous volumes because it’s too hard to believe; I much prefer the presentation of Nita in later volumes, like #75: Satan’s Murder Machines, where she’s getting in on the action instead of just being caught by the villains. The seeds of this later female ass-kickery are planted here in Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate, particularly in a climax that actually gave me the old chills due to the emotional content of the heroic sacrifice and whatnot. Indeed this Spider yarn reaches dramatic heights only hinted at in previous volumes. 

Nita’s betrayal of Wentworth, following him to his slum hideout and distracting him long enough until the cops can show up – that is, after she has, for the first time ever, seriously nagged at him to give up being the Spider – is one of the biggest dramatic surprises in the series yet. But I couldn’t help but chuckle like I was some gutter-minded high schooler (which at heart I guess I always will be), because some of Wentworth and Nita’s dialog here can be taken way out of context:

I mean, seriously! “Stiffly,” “It’s hard, “I want to make it so hard?” Dick lover?! What are these two really talking about?? (And FYI, later in the book Nita does actually say “Dick lover,” without the comma between the two words as in the excerpt above…) It’s been years since I read it, but in Robert Sampson’s 1987 study The Spider I’m pretty sure Sampson speculates that Wentworth and Nita Van Sloan, as a pair of healthy mature adults in love, had to have been engaging in some pre-marital sex off-page, and that Page craftily insinuated so in the text. Page certainly does here; late in Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate Wentworth and Nita take an unexpected trip to Florida (even though the country is literally about to be taken over by the Chief!), and spend a few weeks there, staying together in a beach house. I mean Page can’t get into Harold Robbins “full, upthrusting breasts” territory, it being 1936 and all, but it seems pretty evident that Nita is giving Wentworth the goods during this brief sabbatical from his crimefighting life. After all, by her own admission Nita is a “Dick lover!” Hell, I wish I could go spend a couple weeks in Florida with her. 

Nita isn’t the only woman who wants Wentworth, though; this volume brings a female villainess back to the fold. There hasn’t been one of those in a Spider yarn for a few volumes now. This one’s named Tarsa, and she follows the template of the previous female Spider villains: sinuous, evilly “exotic,” and seemingly just as eager to kill Wentworth as to bed him. Page spends a good bit of the middle half detailing an overlong sequence where Tarsa, who mockingly refers to Wentworth as “Master,” tries to woo Wentworth to the side of the Chief (she of course knows that Wentworth is the Spider – not to mention that he was also Corporal Death), then gets in an extended chase with him through the death trap-laden headquarters of the villains. 

A cool thing about The Spider is that Page will have a bit of continuity in it, with recurring minor characters. This time it’s Bill Horace, a bumbling cop who was made a detective after the events of #20: Reign Of The Death Fiddler – thanks to the help Wentworth gave him. Horace starts off Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate as a dolt, with the joke being he was made detective too soon and is prone to stupid mistakes. Again Wentworth helps him, and gradually Horace turns into a stronger character; by novel’s end he is a crimefighter in his own right, having appropriated a mantle of his own. I am curious to see if he returns in this guise in future volumes. There’s also a laughable bit where Wentworth toys with Horace and others that he, Wentworth, isn’t really the Spider, and the real Spider might become upset that Wentworth is going around pretending to be him! Even Horace is confused by this…at first convinced Wentworth is the Spider, then by novel’s end – thanks to that thrilling climax – thinking he might not be, after all. 

Speaking of which, the Spider costume makes its return in Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate…though as ever the costume is just as quickly cast aside as it is donned. Wentworth per the norm spends the majority of the narrative as himself. But it was cool to finally get a few sequences of the hunchbacked, fanged Spider getup, even if it didn’t last very long. The recent volumes have certainly been lacking in the “costume” department; even the Corporal Death guise didn’t feature a mask or special suit or anything. And as mentioned the crime boss “The Chief” just wears a basic hood. The bigger gimmick is that Wentworth gradually deduces that the entire character is a ruse; there’s some fun un-PC stuff where Wentworth will blow away the Chief, only to take the hood off and see it’s “just a Hindu” who “can’t possibly be the real Chief.” Of course Wentworth is proven correct in novel’s end, but the revelation of who really leads the villains comes off as too arbitrary and as if Page were trying to connect two plot strands. That said, it’s at least better than the lame “villain reveals” of previous yarns, where some random character was outed as the boss. 

Another thorn in Wentworth’s side is Kirkpatrick’s sudden ferocious attack on him; the Spider is accused in the papers of murder and kidnapping and etc throughout the book, and Wentworth is certain Kirkpatrick is behind these false allegations. It’s a subplot Page doesn’t satisfactorily wrap up, but the explanation is this is just another method Kirkpatrick is employing to convince Wentworth to give up being the Spider. As I say, the genetic makeup of the Spider himself is called into question in Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate, with Wentworth not only assailed by the usual external forces but internal ones as well. The only friends not badgering him to give up are Jackson and Ram Singh, who are finally sprung from prison late in the novel – a sequence that features Wentworth’s return as the Spider, working with the new Corporal Death. 

There is of course frequent action throughout, like an attack on a cruise ship that Wentworth desperately tries to prevent. But a lot of the action is one-off sequences that sort of distract from the bigger picture, which is the one thing that always annoys me about The Spider. It does build up to a great climax, with Wentworth, Corporal Death, and the Spider coming to save Kirkpatrick and various politicians who have all been captured in Washington, DC. The nick-of-time appearance of the “other” Spider is the highlight of the novel; even Wentworth is shocked and has no idea who it could be. However, having read the later volume Satans Murder Machines, I had a pretty good hunch – and this didn’t take away from the thrilling nature of the scene at all. Otherwise this climax features characters dissolving and also being chomped apart in an elaborate death machine. 

Shockingly enough, Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate ends with Richard Wentworth declaring that the Spider is dead forever…and he and Nita make their long-delayed walk down the wedding aisle. But, of course, criminal genius The Fly, returning from #11: Prince Of The Red Looters, chooses this precise moment to attack New York…and only the Spider can stop him. In yet more good “character” stuff, it is Kirkpatrick and Nita – the two who spend the entirety of Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate trying to convince Wentworth to quit – who tell our hero that “only the Spider” can save the day. This must be why I was under the impression that The Mayor Of Hell, Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate, and next volume’s Green Globes Of Death formed a trilogy, as last we see Wentworth he is once again rushing into the fray.

1 comment:

Johny Malone said...