As you might've noticed, I review a lot of "men's adventure" books. Those are basically what the pulps turned into during the paperback boom in the 70's and 80's. Don Pendleton's Executioner series gets (and deserves) a lot of credit for making those popular in the 70's, but don't forget that those are really a second wave of something that started a long time ago. Maybe even a third wave, since the pulps of the 30's and 40's were an updating of the dime novels that came out in the 19th century. And those were just a new version of the serialized novels that were popular back in Charles Dicken's day. And before that, there were cave paintings!
Basically, what I'm saying is, this stuff's not new. Hell, Nick Carter started in 1886, in some form or 'nother!
Perhaps most notorious of the old guard of early "men's adventure" proto-pulps was The Spider. He was so badass they even tried to re-publish Spider novels as series novels in the 70's, just changing a few references here and there to make them seem like they hadn't been written in the 30's. The level of violence was high enough to keep in step with anybody in the 70's, and there's so much breakneck action in these things they sometimes make The Death Merchant look restrained. And the bad guys are so crazy-evil they make the Mafia look like shoplifters. They're so heinous The Spider could almost fit as well into the "weird menace" genre as it does action.
The influence on the men's adventure books is pretty obvious. I'm convinced Joe Rosenberger was a big fan of these things, because "Death Merchant" was a term used in the Spider books, as was "Murder Master," and Rosenberger wrote series under both of those titles. He also used a lot of exclamation points and concentrated on action scenes, just like The Spider books did. Also, the Spider had a habit of marking his victims with a red spider seal, and that was echoed in a lot of the 70's books, like the marksman's medals Mack Bolan left around, or The Penetrator's arrowheads.
I've read a good many of these things, enough where reviews of 'em will make a hefty blog post, so I figured it's time to do that.
The main things you need to know about The Spider character can be found in this Wikipedia article. Like Batman, he's a rich playboy who's trained himself to be a skilled masked vigilante. Unlike Batman, though, his villains don't tend to come back again and again, because The Spider blows them to hell with his twin .45 automatics., usually while laughing like a maniac.
And there were a couple of writers, working under the house name "Grant Stockbridge." The first couple (decidedly milder) were penned by R. T. M. Scott, but most of the others were written by Norvell Page. Page, like the Death Merchant's writer Joseph Rosenberger, was a bit of a nut who confused himself with his character. He used to come to work wearing clothes like The Spider's and implied that he did some of the same stuff. Eccentric, but he was probably just having some fun with it. He was definitely into the character, though, and it shows; he turned out some very enthusiastic, kick-ass writing.
The Spider Strikes! - R. T. M. Scott (Berkley, 1969 - originally 1933)
Reprint of the first issue of The Spider pulp fiction magazine from the 30's, this introduces Richard Wentworth, a suave, rich, too-clever crimefighter who is kind of a more-violent version of Sherlock Holmes, or maybe a combo of James Bond and Batman. In any case, he hunts and kills master criminals and leaves a red spider imprint on their foreheads. In later issues he'd wear a strange costume, but in this one he doesn't. Using all his wits (which he's pretty smug about; the man is a smirking smartypants) he gets out of a lot of tough scrapes to bring an evil master of disguise to justice, before he can unleash poison gas on Wall Street in a plot to rule the world. It's pure pulp but it's well-written and very entertaining.
The Cholera King - Norvell Page (Bold Venture, 2001, originally 1936)
Reprint of the April 1936 issue of The Spider pulp magazine is a dark, apocalyptic action novel that's hard to top for sheer slam-bang nihilism and grimness... modern action novels would never go as far as this. Dick Wentworth, a.k.a. The Spider, takes on an evil terrorist called The Plague Master, who infects New York City's water supply with cholera, just because the mass deaths will make the city easier to loot! The Spider blasts away with a .45 in each fist to bring the sicko and his henchmen to justice, while trying to lead millions of thirst-crazed New Yorkers to safety through an empty city lit by thousands of corpse-fires. The body count here is over 30,000! Never lets up and delivers horror-tinged action by the truckload. It's unbelievable that they came up with good guys who'd execute citizens for drinking contaminated water. And Batman's supposedly dark...
The City Destroyer - Norvell Page
Another excellent reprint of a 30's pulp magazine novel, with badass The Spider going in guns first against The Murder Master, a guy who's found a way to crystalize steel so it breaks like candy. He topples buildings (including the Empire State -- it's renamed here but it's obvious) , the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Centra Station, and trains and subways, killing tens of thousands! The Spider's gonna have to dish out a lot of pain to get payback for this one... but how can he when the steel-eating gas can wreck his .45's? Non-stop mayhem, inventively handled.
Reign of the Snake Men - Emile C. Tepperman
Reprint of a Spider pulp from the 30's is typically action-packed and well-written, but not quite as non-stop as some of the others (i.e. the Norvell Page ones). In this one, the "Living Pharoh" unleashes lepers to attack New York and the Spider has to stop them. Okay fast read.
Machine Guns Over The White House - Norvell Page (1937)
Another Norvell Page-penned Spider pulp packed with gat-blasting mayhem. A demented senator is the pawn of a sinister puppetmaster who soon (in an obvious metaphor for Hitler) has criminal stormtroopers filling the streets of Washington D. C., burning alive their opposition and surrounding The White House, wanting to lynch the president. Against impossible odds and already wounded, The Spider takes on this menace to national security! Unbelievable, but it moves.
Rule of the Monster Men - Norvell Page
Reprint of the June 1939 issue of The Spider has a very harrowing and politically-incorrect plot; a fiend called The Wreck is kidnapping citizens and surgically crippling and deforming them, making them into a handicapped army of slaves. He even manages to cripple The Spider's girlfriend, Nita! Pretty damn extreme there, Norvell. Needless to say, The Spider is soon relentlessly on the warpath. Fast-paced, action-packed, and kinda creepy.
Hordes of the Red Butcher - Norvell Page
An evil criminal mastermind travels with a bunch of Neanderthal men he found somewhere and turned into an army that ransacks whole towns for him. Richard Wentworth, a.k.a. The Spider, has to stop them before they take over the entire country... but to make that feat even harder, he's framed for murder and put on death row. Meanders and loses focus a bit, but still a typically action-packed Spider story.
Satan's Murder Machines - Norvell Page (1939) (included in the Baen book, Robot Titans of Gotham)
This Spider novel starts out so breakneck it's almost as if Page decided to speed things up by throwing out the first couple of chapters; you don't even know where the giant robots attacking the city came from, but the Spider's already in a pitched battle with them when the book opens, and the pace never slows down. The masked' vigilante's twin .45s have no effect against The Iron Man and his giant robot army, and even suicidally ramming them with his limousine does no good, but The Spider is determined to the point of insanity, and even a bad case of pneumonia won’t stop him from taking on the threat. The action is so constant it gets a little numbing, but it’s still another solid Spider novel, even if some of the action is a little far-fetched (such as when The Spider blows up a robot’s finger-gun by firing a .45 slug down it’s barrel! But, what the hell, The Butcher did that in one of his books, too...)
And while I'm at it, just to make sure ya'll are getting your money's worth, here's a review of another Page novel contained in The Robot Titans of Gotham book pictured above, which also contains another Spider novel, Death Reign of the Vampire King.
The Octopus - Norvell Page (1939)
This was the sole issue of a proposed pulp magazine series built around the exploits of an extremely evil arch-villain (and, with a few name changes and such, it was also issued as a pulp called The Scorpion). It's a short, rushed-feeling, amazingly gory and gruesome work with writing that's sometimes almost too sloppy to keep the story on track, but which also gets so purple-prosey that it becomes almost poetic. People all over the city are developing strange skin cancers and deformations that turn them into crazed monsters who crave human blood. A kindly doctor who leads triple life (rich layabout Jeffery Fairchild/ compassionate charity-case-tending Dr. Skull/ crime-fighting vigilante The Skull Killer) has to take on the forces of The Octopus before his ultraviolet beams make monsters of everyone in the city. The narrative is very unfocused and full of scattered viewpoints, but it doesn't let up and has a strange morbid urgency to it, like the babbled tale of some madman who's clutching your arm. So, for that, the gore, the historical value, and the brevity (it's more novella than novel) it's well worth checking out.