The Spider #11: Prince Of The Red Looters, by Grant Stockbridge
August, 1934 Popular Publications
Without question the most subdued volume of The Spider I’ve yet read, Prince Of The Red Looters goes for more of a mystery-suspense vibe than the bloody chaos of preceding volumes. And while hero Richard “The Spider” Wentworth is at pains to state that this volume’s villain, The Fly, is the most evil and merciless man he’s ever faced, the truth is the Fly is pretty tame and lame. The dude doesn’t even wear a mask!!
It’s a hot August and the apocalyptic events of the previous volume have of course been forgotten. I mean, that was a whole three weeks ago or whatever. Wentworth has more pressing things in mind – like the challenge placed to the Spider in the newspapers. Signed by someone calling himself “The Fly,” the challenge reverses the “said the spider to the fly” saying, with the Fly inviting the Spider into his parlor…if he dares. As we meet him Wentworth is disguised as a milkman, heading into a tenement building which has been listed in the latest newspaper-printed challenge as where the Fly will meet him.
The cops have the place surrounded, monitoring the woman also mentioned in the paper: redheaded beauty Rosetta Dulain, whom author Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page wants us to understand without actually stating it is a stripper. For once Wentworth dons his “Tito Caliepi” disguise here, the old man with hunchback and fangs disguise which gradually became “the” Spider look but which comes and goes in these early volumes. Posthaste he meets the Fly, who waits for him in Rosetta’s room. The Fly is described as a sort of dandy with slicked-back blond hair and black eyes. No mask or outrageous costume or anything. After the villains of previous volumes, he’s quite a letdown.
He is good with sabres, though, and so is Wentworth, and they go at each other. Wentworth gets the drop on him and has a chance to kill an unarmed Fly, but due to his usual stern code he refuses to do so. The Fly for his part pulls a gun, apologizes for the lack of conduct, and takes off. Meanwhile he’s promised to wage a war of crime on New York. He is the total antithesis of Richard Wentworth, something Page reminds us again and again: a man of intelligence and wealth who has decided to do evil instead of good. We are to understand that he is Wentworth’s equal in every regard. Still, the Fly lacks much spark.
Even his criminal acts, while horrible, are like minor atrocities when compared to the craziness that came before. His first hit is on the National Bank, where he waltzes in, makes off with a million dollars thanks to an air gun hidden in his cane, killing off several bank employees in his escape. Wentworth’s best friend/archenemy Stanley Kirkpatrick, Commissioner of Police, is framed and forced to resign over this; Mayor W.O. Purviss, a fervent Spider-hater, comes across a letter supposedly delivered to Kirkpatrick’s office the day before, warning of the bank robbery. The letter of course is a forgery, but Kirkpatrick resigns anyway. New commissioner Holland is hired by Purviss to take down the perpetrators – and also bring in, finally, the Spider.
Kirkpatrick mostly disappears from the tale, which occurs over just a few days. Instead we hang out with his nephew Corkie, who himself is a sabre enthusiast. Corkie’s been fighting it out with Joe Stull, a banker who is also skilled with sabres. Corkie’s quickly cleared but Wentworth spends the novel wondering if Joe Stull, who doesn’t even have a line of dialog, might be the Fly. Or is it MacTivish, Holland’s Chief Inspector? Or is it Fred Cook, a notorious gangster who is also a master of sabre-fighting? As mentioned Prince Of The Red Looters goes more for the mystery angle, with a lot more narrative focused on who the Fly might be than previous villain-outings.
Making it all the more annoying is how Wentworth has so many face-to-face confrontations with the Fly, yet he can never figure out who he really is – even when the bastard isn’t wearing a mask! I mean even Clark Kent wore a pair of glasses; this dude doesn’t even do that. There’s another sabre-fight in a hotel room above the restaurant in which Wentworth, Corkie, and the lovely Nita are dining; Wentworth, playing the role of the bored millionaire, caps off this scene with a rare bit of in-jokery when he complains to another diner, “Some people have all the fun. Nothing ever happens to me.”
Rosetta “Rose” Dulain is this volume’s bad girl, but she’s barely in the novel, and when she is she’s whining and crying. Her kid sister Ginnie has been taken captive by the Fly, and though Rose knows who the Fly is and where he’s located, poor Ginnie will be killed if she talks. This lame plot convenience is frustratingly played out throughout the narrative, with Wentworth, who keeps Rose in his luxurious penthouse suite, trying to get the woman to talk, and Rose refusing to, worried that Ginnie will die if she does. Even Nita fails to get her to talk. Oh, and Corkie’s in love with Ginnie, even though he just met her.
Action is sporadic, and again low-key when compared to earlier craziness; the Fly “only” kills about a thousand people all told, which is pretty damn paltry when considering the average Spider villain. Like a villain in the Batman TV show, the Fly merely wants to become a kingpin of crime, uniting the various lowlifes of New York under his rubric. Hence if he kills the Spider, he will be the greatest villain in history. This fuels his various robberies throughout, like a hit on an opera house in which the Fly sets the place on fire as a diversion and then uses poison gas to take out the rich patron’s section, looting the corpses of their jewels and cash.
Page does have fun with the tale, like when Wentworth disguises himself as one of the Fly’s stooges and infiltrates one of the sadists’s tenement headquarters. The place is booby-trapped like something out of a vintage cliffhanger serial, with poison, false doors, and a wall with armed men standing behind it, ready to blow away “Gus” if he says the wrong thing. And yet despite passing through all the barriers Wentworth blows it, having donned a man’s shirt that has a bullet hole in the arm; the Fly immediately notices that “Gus” doesn’t seem to be injured, despite the bloody bullet hole. The brilliant fiend!
Wentworth of course manages to escape after a firefight in the darkened room. Our hero himself must’ve suffered withdrawal symptoms after this one, as all told he only wastes several villains. Plus despite his oft-mentioned rage, Wentworth is a little slow on the uptake here. Nita, again relegated to the sidelines, fails to get Rose to talk, so Wentworth finally has enough of the girl’s shit and gets tough with her. He fools her into thinking that the Fly has hurt the girl, after all, and then has Ram Singh tail Rose, knowing that she’ll head to the Fly’s secret headquarters for revenge.
All this ties in with the final big setpiece; the Fly plans to hit the National Bank again, as well as a few other banks, all at once. It’s a big plan that involves dirigibles being secured to the rooftops and men coming down to loot. To add to the usual atrocities they spray Fifth Avenue with deadly phosphene gas; Wentworth comes upon piles and piles of corpses on the streets in an eerie moment, one which brings to mind the infamous War Of The Worlds radio broadcast from 1938. Meanwhile Kirkpatrick has been re-appointed Commissioner and has sent planes with machine guns to the rescue.
The final pages return to the vibe of earlier volumes. Wentworth, again in the “skirted mask” getup he sometimes wears as the Spider, closes in on the Fly’s other tenement HQ, Ram Singh at his side. There’s a cool part where the two heroes ambush a roomful of underworld bigwigs and just massacre them, Ram Singh slicing up guts and throats and Wentworth blowing out brains. Then we come to the outing of the Fly, who gets in one last sabre-fight with our hero; meanwhile, Wentworth has figured out who it is. Stop reading this paragraph if you don’t want to know, but as usual it’s the least likely candidate: none other than Deputy Commissoiner Holland!
The book shows its age with a long footnote courtesy Page where he describes these wondrous new inventions called contact lenses. The phrase isn’t used this early in the game, but they are described as misery-causing shards of glass that the wearer “gradually” becomes used to. Sure they got used to them – right after they’d torn off their retinas, that is. Anyway Page tells us that these are mostly used by actors; the Fly has been wearing them to make his eyes black, which is as we’ll recall the guy’s sole “disguise.” But anyway Wentworth slices him and he plunges to his death, but someone claiming to be the Fly returned in the later installment Green Globes Of Death. We’ll find out then if it’s the same guy or not.
I didn’t love Prince Of The Red Looters, but I didn’t hate it, either. Like any other Spider installment it races along, even if it lacks the usual insanities. Nita doesn’t have much to do in it, but at least Ram Singh gets in on the action – there’s a nice bit of character depth where he almost disobeys Wentworth’s orders, due to his concern over his master – but Wentworth is as usual the star of the show, and he’s compelling enough a character that he can still carry this one pretty much on his own.