The Spider #3: Wings of the Black Death by "Grant Stockbridge" (December, 1933; published in book form, 1969)
Let's talk about The Spider, the "Master of Men" who blazed a bloody trail through the adventure/crime pulps for nearly a decade.
The Spider's real identity is Richard Wentworth, millionaire playboy and former World War I major, whose wealth seems not to have been affected by the Depression. The last surviving member of his family, Wentworth is served by two faithful servants, Ram Singh, a Hindu (or maybe a Sikh -- it gets confusing) who can throw knives with deadly accuracy, and Jenkyns, Wentworth's elderly butler -- both Ram Singh and Jenkyns would serve their beloved master to the death. Also in the cast of characters is Wentworth's fiance, the beautiful Nita van Sloan. Alas, Wentworth and Nita can never marry because, should his secret identity become known (and it does, frequently), Nita would be in great danger. That's the type of logic that worked well in the Thirties, I guess. Rounding out the cast is Stanley Kirkpatrick, Commissioner of Police, Wentworth's friend and The Spider's enemy. Kirkpatrick believes Wentworth is The Spider and is determined to catch him, put him on trial, and see him executed. Conflicted? Yes. Because Wentworth's hobby is criminology Kirkpatrick often consults with him, and vice versa. As The Spider's saga grows, more characters are added, including some recurring villains.
The Spider wages war against crime, mainly supervillains able to hold the city or the country in a grip of bloody terror. To quote pulp expert Ed Hulse, "Spider novels death tolls routinely run into the thousands," The villain is usually exposed and killed at the end of the story. Also killed without compunction are numerous crooks and bad guys, all left with a red ink mark in the shape of a spider on their cold, dead foreheads. The Spider is a vigilante raised to the tenth power. But he only kills crooks (lots of 'em) and will not fire on any member of the police, even when they have a shot to kill order about him. As mentioned above, the Spider is often exposed as Wentworth in the early books, but he somehow manages to wriggle out of it before his next adventure.
The Spider has no superpowers. What he has is a great athletic ability, absolute daring, confidence, and a deadly aim. He wears a black cloak, a wide-brimmed dark hat, and a mask. He is a master of disguise and uses them much more in later books in the series. The Spider can also imitate voices accurately. He is call the Master of Men because his commanding voice often makes people want to obey him.
The Spider originated in the first issue of Popular Publications' The Spider magazine, dated October 1933; the story was titled "The Spider Strikes" and was written by R. T. M. Scott under the house name "Grant Stockbridge." Scott would also write the Spider's second monthly novel-length adventure. The magazine was a hit, but Scott's approach was deemed a bit staid, so pulpster Norvell Page was brought in to write the third story. Page would eventually write 92 of the 118 adventures, four in collaboration with Robert Turner. Other writers to fill in the gap were Emile Tepperman (twelve novels), Wayne Rogers (eleven), and Prentice Mitchell (best known as Stewart Stirling) contributed one novel. There was also an unpublished novel that would have been the 119th adventure but the magazine closed before it could be published: "Slaughter, Inc." by Donald G. Cormack -- this novel languished for 36 years before being revised (no more The Spider. the hero became Blue Steel) and published in 1979; it was published in its original form in 2012.
Although his popularity could not match that of his pulp rivals Doc Savage and The Shadow, the Spider came in third in popularity, both then and now. The Spider lacked a consistent publisher to bring back his adventures in book form. Thirteen different publishers at various times brought out various Spider novels piecemeal from 1969 to the present. Between them, 92 of the original 119 novels have appeared in book form; 27 remain not reprinted.
The Spider's popularity in films was limited to two serials: The Spider's Touch (1938) and The Spider Returns (1943). With the advent of the "new pulp" movement, two original anthologies of The Spider stories have appeared: The Spider Chronicles (2007) and The Spider: Extreme Prejudice (2013). Author C. J. Henderson contributed an original Spider novel, Shadow of Evil, in 2012, and new pulp author Will Murray began a series of novels The Wild Adventures of The Spider, in which The Spider interacts with other old pulp heroes; the first, The Doom Legion, appeared in 2018, followed by Fury in Steel. It appears that The Spider is still with us.
Wings of the Black Death was The Spider's third outing and the first to be written by Norvell Page. A villain, known only as The Black Death, has been blackmailing citizens -- pay up or suffer from the deadly bubonic plague. This is not your ordinary run of the mill bubonic plague. This one kills -- horribly -- within twenty-four hours. But The Black Death has just begun. He demands that the city's banks pool together one billion dollars, and give it to the city so the city can pay the extraordinary blackmail. To prove his point, The Black Death releases the plague on a number of large groups, killing hundreds at a time. There is no indication how this villain was able to engineer the disease, nor do we know how he managed to assemble his criminal gang. The plague, it turns out, is delivered by flock of pigeons, hence the "Wings" in the story's title. Yep, the villain cornered the market on the city's pigeons. Since this is a pulp, hastily written, we do have a pretty good idea who is behind these heinous crimes -- it's so obvious The Spider and the entire police force must all be dim bulbs not to realize who the villain is.
But all this is secondary to the action, and there is plenty of that. Added in the mix is the villain killing policemen (something the real Spider would never do, remember?) and placing a pretty good imitation of The Spider's signature red mark on their foreheads. Commissioner Kirkpatrick orders his force to shoot The Spider on sight. Kirkpatrick exposes Wentworth as The Spider and arrests him at a gala. On the way to jail, The Spider escapes and dies a watery death. -- Oh. no! The Spider's dead? Yeah, right.) Nita and Ram Singh and Jenkyns all go into mourning. The city is moderately relieved because The Spider (presumably also the cause of the plague) is dead. But...aha!...he actually isn't! All of these standard pulp tropes should irritate, but they don't. The fast-paced action and the purple prose race the reader enjoyably to the conclusion.
This was the first Spider story I have read. It won't be the last.