THE SPIDER, MASTER OF MEN # 1: The Spider Strikes. R.T.M. Scott. Way back in 1933 in The Spider pulp magazine this story introduced the scourge of the Underworld, The Spider. Although cut from the same cloth in some ways, The Spider is very different from The Shadow. The similarities are obvious, of course: both men are shadowy vigilantes and criminologists who have a tense relationship with the police, several associates to help them with their work, and are considered criminals themselves by the authorities and much of the public. But there is perhaps a difference in tone and approach. The Spider is, if anything, even more ruthless than The Shadow, although he has a soft sensitive kindly side as well. In any case, The Spider comes off as more than just a knock-off of The Shadow. The Spider is actually Richard Wentworth, who operates as a kind of private detective while, in some cases, working with the police. His girlfriend Nita Van Sloane and Man Friday Ran Singh know of his dual identity and do what they can to help him maintain it while aiding him in various other ways.
In this debut novel, The Spider is after a master criminal who plans a caper that will result in the deaths of thousands of people, only Wentworth isn't certain exactly what it entails. Over several suspenseful and atmospheric chapters The Spider trails this evil person, whose identity is unknown [and who refers to himself as "Mister X"], all over New York, from penthouses to lowly apartment buildings to sinister boats in the harbor. [In one wonderful passage Scott describes the eerie feeling one gets even in a car as you traverse Central Park through the dark wooded roadways that connect the east and west sides of Manhattan - this is still true over seventy years later!] The Spider uses a cigarette lighter to leave the brand of a spider on the forehead of each victim. This lighter figures in a taut early scene when a police inspector tries to trap Wentworth with the unwilling aid of Nita. Although the identity of Mr. X is revealed a little too early, and he is never developed much as a character despite some tantalizing hints, The Spider Strikes holds the interest and is generally well-written. [Comparing a young woman in distress with his somewhat older girlfriend, Nita, Wentworth thinks "it was the charm of youth shining in her eyes and not the poetry of the soul as in the case of Nita."] A scene when The Spider invades the headquarters of his enemy is genuinely creepy. It's a shame that so influential a character has been virtually forgotten [Berkley reissued some of the stories in paperback in the late sixties]. An adaptation of this novel would have made a great movie or cliffhanger serial. [For a review of The Spider's Web, the first cliffhanger serial based on this character, go to our Comic Book Movies page: ]
THE SHADOW: Jade Dragon/House of Ghosts. Maxwell Grant [Walter Gibson]. Doubleday Crime Club; 1981. [Originally published in The Shadow pulp magazine.] In the first story, Jade Dragon (1942), The Shadow gets involved with a variety of characters who are interested in a mysterious statue that radiates evil and seems to cast a frightening shadow of its own [an aspect that is ultimately not exploited]. There is the usual pretty gal, Glorida Brent, who is an agent for a wealthy art dealer named Gilmore, and a bizarre lizard-like assassin named Taka Takara. There is also Chung Sung of the Wei Hai Wei organization, and the Old One who pretends to be him as a joke. A large number of The Shadow's agents take part in this adventure, including Myra Reldon (who disguises herself as the Chinese Ming Dawn), Chance LeBrue, Cliff Marsland, Hawkeye, Clyde Burke, and of course Harry Vincent. The Shadow discovers a Jade mine in California, a sweatshop making false art treasures, and tunnels under San Francisco's Chinatown. Who is the real villain, Chung Sung - or someone else? This is an okay adventure but it lacks the rich atmosphere of the Fu Manchu stories with their assorted "Orientalisms." In the second story, House of Ghosts, The Shadow trails a crook to an old, allegedly haunted house - Stanbridge Manor - whose residents not only believe in ghosts but are afraid that, like Poe's Usher family, they can lapse into comas which only have the appearance of death [nothing is really made of this, however]. There was a recent death in the family, and an old woman in the house is convinced her late brother is haunting the tower. Lamont Cranston sends in two agents, including Margo Lane, as reporters when a ghost hunter and debunker named Dunninger [a real-life person of the period who "guest-starred" in this installment] shows up to investigate the manor. This is a very minor Shadow adventure with a modicum of suspense and eeriness.
THE SHADOW: The Freak Show Murders. Maxwell Grant [Walter Gibson]. Crime Club/Doubleday 1978. The Freak Show Murders, originally published in The Shadow pulp magazine from Street and Smith in 1944, pits the cloaked crime fighter against a colorfully caparisoned villain who calls himself the Harlequin. The Harlequin has attached himself to a sideshow and could be any one of a number of suspects: Ajax the Strongman to Alhambra, the Snake Queen. He rushes about, with The Shadow in quick pursuit, murdering anyone who has a statue comprised of a certain special material - alumite -- that can be used in a formula worth millions. While not a great mystery as such, this is nevertheless a quick, reasonably entertaining read that reminds one of a cliffhanger serial with their sinister masked antagonists. One plus: an extremely clever ending. The less interesting adventure, A Quarter of Eight, is also featured in this hardbound volume. It concerns coins split into quarters that lead to a treasure and the usual dangers.