Death traps come in all shapes and sizes. A Nazi spy once tried to drop Charlie Chan through a trap door installed in an elevator. Batman was once tied up to a giant birthday cake candle that shot him up into the air. The Shadow was once trapped in a locked room with metal doors and a small army of gangsters sticking machine gun barrels in his direction through narrow gun ports.
But, by golly, any hero worth his salt will beat impossible odds and make good his escape from the latest model death traps.
There are two particular death traps that have always stood out in my mind as being particularly horrible.
The first pops up towards the end of the novel The Return of Fu Manchu (1916), the second of that series. The heroes, Nayland Smith and his friend Dr. Petrie, have been captured by the evil Devil Doctor.
Smith is laid flat on the floor and locked into a cage divided into six compartments, with the first compartment containing Smith's feet and so on up to his head.
He glanced toward the Burman, who retired immediately, to re-enter a moment later carrying a curious leather sack, in shape not unlike that of a sakka or Arab water-carrier. Opening a little trap in the top of the first compartment of the cage (that is, the compartment which covered Smith's bare feet and ankles) he inserted the neck of the sack, then suddenly seized it by the bottom and shook it vigorously. Before my horrified gaze four huge rats came tumbling out from the bag into the cage! The dacoit snatched away the sack and snapped the shutter fast. A moving mist obscured my sight, a mist through which I saw the green eyes of Dr. Fu-Manchu fixed upon me, and through which, as from a great distance, his voice, sunk to a snake-like hiss, came to my ears.
"Cantonese rats, Dr. Petrie, the most ravenous in the world . . . they have eaten nothing for nearly a week!"
So poor Nayland Smith is going to have to watch himself get eaten alive by rats, one body section at a time. Petrie is chained to a chair next to him and given a sword, but his range of motion is limited so that the only action he can take with the weapon would be to put Smith out of his misery.
Now that's evil.
But not, perhaps, as evil as the trap the villainous Mrs. Pruneface placed Dick Tracy into. In a sequence of Chester Gould's brilliant comic strip published in 1943, Mrs. Pruneface (looking to revenge the death of her husband, the Nazi spy Pruneface) captures Tracy and ties him to the floor. Then she mounts a refrigerator over him on blocks of ice, with a spike protruding from the 'fridge down towards Tracy. So, as the ice melts....