Wednesday, January 26, 2011


From December 1934, this Spider adventure has me exhausted just from reading it. I don't know how Wentworth does it; once the case begins, he apparently runs all over Manhattan for three days and nights without once stopping to eat or sleep (except when he's knocked unconscious). Professor Brownlee must be brewing him up some amphetamine or something.

If you want frantic, headlong action as a single man fights desperately to save the public from an evil mastermind, this book delivers it. All over Manhattan, thousands of people suddenly start screaming, clawing at their throats and dropping lifeless to the street. It turns out someone has been tampering with tobacco and now cigarettes are deadly. (What? Cigarettes are harmful? Come on now...) As Brownlee explains to our hero, "...this gas has the power of building up the nicotine in one cigarette to the killing point."

It's hard to realize today, when people pretty much have to go outside to smoke, but in 1934 there were almost no restrictions on the habit. Restaurants, theaters and stores were filled with people puffing away. Men used pipes and cigars a lot more, but smoking was about as common as wearing shoes. So the idea of poisoned tobacco must have really hit home to readers of the story when it first came out. Imagine all the guys on the subway, lighting up a cig and reading about people dying horribly from smoking.

(And behind this is the fiendish plot to corner the market with safe Denict cigarettes which will then gradually have dope introduced into them, so that they will become addictive. Whoa...)

By this point, the Spider novels had moved on from their rather traditional mystery origins and were starting to be apocalyptic disaster stories with huge body counts and the end of the world seemingly at hand. Right away, Wentworth's sweetie Nita has been kidnapped by the unknown enemy, his semi-friend Commissioner Kirkpatrick has apparently turned against him and ordered him shot on sight, and his attempts to warn the public are laughed at (they think he's just another reformer preaching about the evils of modern life.)

Well. The Spider has a real challenge this time.
In addition to being on the run from the police and heartsick over Nita's kidnapping, Wentworth finds he seems to be investigating two seperate gang of Chinese criminals. One is led by a skeleton thin creep with a red veil but the other, more serious threat, is the organization run by the Red Mandarin... a genuine supervillain worthy of any pulp hero's mettle.

There are enough running gunfights and car chases and desperate narrow escapes to make your average private eye think about changing careers, but Wentworth thrives on this stuff. As fast as he sends a bullet through a crook's forehead, he's reloading. I have to say that (as Norvell Page presents him) the Spider is one of the most dangerous characters in adventure fiction; I think he could hold his own against Robert E. Howard heroes like Francis X. Gordon or even Solomon Kane. It's not so much that he's cornered in a room with a dozen killers, it's more like they're trapped in there with HIM. After a sword fight with two giant guards and then plowing through a dozen Chinese fighters, when Wentworth is finally brought down and dragged away, he starts laughing at seeing the carnage he's caused. That gave me an uneasy chill.

Two scenes in particular stand out. In a small unlit room with a group of gangsters, Wentworth sits on a corpse's stomach and makes it groan when he expells air from its lungs... and since this seems to unnerve the crooks, he does it again and scares the thugs into thinking the dead man is talking. But what I will always remember from this book is one very unlikely series of events. In crowded Manhattan, absolutely packed with Christmas shoppers, several people scream and began thrashing around from the poisoned cigarettes (is that a tautology?), and the mob starts to panic. Hundreds will be hurt in the stampede, so Richard Wentworth seizes a cornet and gets them all to start singing, "Silent Night". I kid you not. I don't know if this scene stands up to cold examination, but caught up in the heat of Norvell Page's overwrought writing style, I believed it while it was happening....

I should note here that Page (along with Harold Davis in a few Doc Savage novels) seems to have the idea that hypnosis is some sort of telepathic emanation, and that the moment the hypnotist is killed, all his subjects will snap out of their spells wherever they are. Maybe he was thinking of Dracula.

The big finale has our beloved Nita in a cell, with a lustful orangutan just aching to have his way with her. Now my first thought was, "Not Clyde! He would never be so crude!" But a little research shows that in fact subdominant male orangutans do routinely rape their females as well as other males, despite the victim's struggles. There are even documented cases of orangutans raised in human households becoming sexually aggressive with human females, and of course the peoples who are native to the areas where these apes live have always said the hairy brutes will occasionally carry off a woman for an unpleasant experience. So I'll never be able to watch EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE again wtthout keeping a suspicious eye on that Clyde character (although not even he found Sondra Locke attractive).