Thursday, February 23, 2012

What's In A Name?

There were so many heroes, anti-heroes and supercriminals running about during the first half of the 20th Century—many of them with nom de plumes (the Shadow, the Avenger, the Phantom Detective, the Black Bat,  the Octopus, G-8)—that it’s not surprising to discover that two of them coincidentally shared the same code name. There were, it turns out, two different guys known as the Spider.

The second Spider, active from 1933 to 1943, is the more famous one among fans of pulp fiction. He was really Richard Wentworth, who adapted the identity of the Spider to fight criminals too vicious for the mere police to handle. Wearing a hideous disguise and a dark cloak, he used his blazing .45 automatics to cut a swath of death across the underworld.

This Spider was obviously an attempt to cash in on the success of the Shadow, but his stories had their own individuality and unique energy. The best ones were written by Norvell W. Page, who tossed the Spider into battle against the worst mass murderers in history. And when I say mass murderers—I really mean mass murderers.

Gee whiz, New York City seemed to be reduced to rubble on a monthly basis in the pages of The Spider. One criminal was blowing up skyscrapers. Another was burning people to death by the thousands. Another raised an army of psychotic hoboes and tried to take over the country. Yet another released hordes of rapid vampire bats over several major cities.

The Spider fought back, refusing to be stopped even when beaten, wounded, drugged, or framed and sent to death row. Heck, he once climbed up the side of a skyscraper with two large metal balls chained to his legs and killed several heavily-armed thugs with just a knife in order to stop the bad guys.

The Spider stories aren’t as good as those of the Shadow. They’re often too loosely plotted to be completely satisfying and the violence (especially the frequency with which women are threatened with rape) is occasionally too gruesome and tasteless. But, despite their flaws, they are often fun and truly exciting adventures.

But Richard Wentworth wasn’t the first Spider. His predecessor was active a few decades earlier, with his adventures recounted within the pages of Detective Story Magazine in 1918 and 1919.

This Spider was a supercriminal. He used to run an organization in Paris, but he was betrayed and trapped in a burning building. Crippled from the injuries he received, he moved to America and built a new organization, directing its activities from a room in his mansion known, of course, as the Spider’s Den.

But for a crook, this first Spider really isn’t such a bad guy. He steals from other crooks and often returns his ill-gotten gains to the original owners. He’s more a force of vigilante justice than a true criminal. He also refrains from actually ever murdering anyone, though he does use the threat of murder to take revenge on some old enemies.

The protagonist of the Spider novellas is John Warwick, a society guy who was cheated out of his fortune by other society guys. So now he works for the Spider again, gradually building his fortune back up while falling in love with Silvia Rodney. Silvia is the Spider’s niece, though she apparently doesn’t know about his nefarious activities.

The adventures of this Spider were recounted by Johnston McCully—one of the many series characters he created before striking pay dirt with Zorro in 1919. The Spider tales are old enough to be in the public domain, but they don’t seem to have been reprinted for years. In fact, I was only vaguely aware of the character until recently, when I did run across “The Spider’s Strain” (1919) in a pulp reprint magazine called Adventure Tales.

It’s not a bad story. Warwick wants to retire from the organization and marry Silvia. The Spider agrees to this, but only after Warwick completes one more job—stealing an apparently worthless locket from a society dame.

Warwick has no idea why the Spider wants the locket, but he soon finds out that another criminal band also wants it badly. Warwick gets kidnapped, then rescued by his Japanese valet Togo. The locket is stolen, recovered, stolen again and seems to vanish. The other crooks seem to have won. But a twist (that many readers will probably see coming) brings the story to a happy conclusion.

It’s not a bad story at all, though Warwick’s clipped manner of speaking is very, vary annoying. He has a tendency to speak in partial sentences to the point where you just want to smack him one. “Must not monopolize Mrs. Barker. My word! Haven’t danced with her for quite some time! Pleasure I cannot miss this evening—what? Must assert my rights, and all that sort of thing !”

Seriously, doesn’t that make you want to dope-slap the guy and tell him to speak properly?

Robert Sampson’s book From the Dark Side (part of an invaluable six-volume history of pulp characters) describes the problem perfectly:

Warwick is addicted, don’t you know, to an atrocious pseudo-English slanginess—all that sort of thing.

But Warwick is a likeable enough chap all the same and you do end up rooting for him.

I’ve look around a bit on the Internet and haven’t yet run across any of McCully’s other Spider stories. I know from Sampson’s book that the Spider retires at the end of the last story and announces he’ll use his fortune to do good to atone for a life of crime.

It might be interesting to think about who would come out on top if Richard Wentworth had ever taken on the first Spider’s organization. But it never would have happened, even if they had overlapped each other chronologically. Wentworth battled psychotic megalomaniacs who slaughtered innocents by the thousands. The first Spider apparently never harmed a fly and stole only from other crooks. Heck, I don’t think Wentworth would have even bothered to nark the first Spider out to the cops. 

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