Blog: Writing about all things pulplish

The Spider #89: ‘The Spider and the Slave Doctor’

Posted by at 10:00 am Friday, May 5, 2017 in Pulp, The Spider
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

The Spider #89: ‘The Spider and the Slave Doctor’
 Pulp cover for The Spider and the Slave Doctor.

Pulp cover for “The Spider and the Slave Doctor.”

“The Spider and the Slave Doctor” was originally published in the February 1941 issue of The Spider Magazine. Young Doctor Gilmuir bravely faced execution for a ghastly murder he didn’t commit! And Richard Wentworth, the only man who could save him, must first crush the slaves of the Man in the Red Mask — the master-killer whose nation-wide terror plague was calculated to monopolize all life-giving drugs!

This story is a real stinker. It’s a prime example of an entry into the series that had passed its prime. There are some pretty good scenes, but there are also a lot of ragged and loose ends. There is evidence that the story was edited heavily before publication… very heavily and crudely. It’s almost as if the first chapter was simply hacked off. The story opens in the middle of the action, and references are made to things that happened before. This isn’t just a style of writing, where things are explained as you go along. No, there are just important pieces missing, and that’s all there is to it. If the missing scenes could be restored, this might be a fairly well-done story. But as it is, I can’t recommend it.

Our story opens as The Spider stops a cop on the street and asks for a match. The policeman recognizes The Spider, and the chase is on. You see, lots has already happened, and the bluecoat has good reason to try to capture The Spider. So, what did we miss? Horace Milligan has been murdered. Criminals are trying to take control of the drug industry. Milligan, a drug manufacturer, resisted and was killed. It was a horrible murder, or so Nita van Sloan tells us. He was strangled and thrust into a stagnant pool of water to which had been added some chemicals. It absolutely destroyed the flesh of his face and hands. You just know that this scene was too pulpy not to have been in the original manuscript. Obviously such a gruesome death was described in the deleted chapter(s). Too bad it was cut.

Richard Wentworth is The Spider!

Richard Wentworth is The Spider!

There’s some evidence that young Dr. Robert Gilmuir, engaged to Iris, Milligan’s daughter, did the killing. At Dr. Gilmuir’s home, laboratory animals were found which apparently had died by the same process that had destroyed Mr. Milligan. And that was enough evidence to send the doctor to the chair for murder.

Milligan manufactured drugs, which have now turned out to be poisoned… or maybe they’re dangerously diluted ineffective. Not sure of the details, but people died. The Spider broke into Milligan’s safe, but it was a trap. A steel animal trap snapped down, breaking The Spider’s hand. In escaping the scene, The Spider has allegedly killed a guard, and the police chase after him. And that’s where our story opens.

Dick Wentworth rushes into a restaurant to meet up with Nita van Sloan. Police Commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick soon arrives and seeks to test Wentworth’s hand, to attempt to prove, once again, that Wentworth is The Spider. The animal trap in the safe was set by the police, you see. As always, Kirkpatrick is determined to prove that his “good friend” Wentworth is really The Spider. He wants to send him up to the death house for all the killings that The Spider has committed. Some “good friend” he is, eh?

So, from there things run along at a brisk clip, and is typical with Spider stories. Iris Mulligan is kidnapped and The Spider chases the kidnappers, but loses them. Nita is also kidnapped and put through some harrowing torture with snakes. The Spider eventually frees her, to no one’s surprise. Jackson and Ram Singh are both drugged and hospitalized. And the battles go on with a frenzy until the very end.

As is typical in many of The Spider tales, paranoia runs high. Everyone seems to be involved with the criminal gang. The mob trying to take over the prescription drug trade seems to have tentacles that reach everywhere. Everyone is involved. Trust no one! The police? Too many dirty cops. The district attorney is suspect. The lawmakers at the state government, the senators, are corrupt and in the pocket of the gang. Even the governor himself seems only too willing to ignore the obvious evidence and see poor Dr. Gilmuir go to the chair. The Spider is forced to work nearly alone, assisted only by his close group of aides.

This story's guest cast.

This story’s guest cast.

Nita van Sloan is there, and serves as a sounding board to help the reader figure out what is going on. And she also serves as a damsel in distress to be rescued. But she also gets to show her stuff when she enters a gun-fray and when she jumps in an airplane and pilots Wentworth to the district attorney’s Vermont summer cabin. Both Jackson the chauffeur and Ram Singh the bodyguard are here, but don’t get to do much. Butler Jenkyns gets only mentioned in passing.

The fact that such a large opening section of the story was cut means that the reader doesn’t get a chance to meet and relate to the poor young doctor who we’re supposed to be rooting for. The whole story revolves around saving his life from the electric chair, but we have no emotional attachment to him. We only meet him once in the middle of the story in the courtroom. We get no description of him, other than he is young and has a sprawl of stubborn hair. Obviously the cut sections of this story gave a bit more of an introduction to the character, but without them, the whole story seems flat and unmotivated.

And there are things we are just expected to believe and accept without explanation. In the restaurant scene in Chapter one, the waiter tries to poison Wentworth. One character claims “it’s the same poison used to kill Horace Milligan.” And we are just supposed to believe it. How could he know? There’s no explanation. Just believe…

Another annoying loose thread is Senator Medway. There’s a big buildup of this character. He’s in the employ of the criminal gang. Eventually, he disappears in a huge inferno of a conflagration. “Wentworth had no doubt that Medway would be reported dead. And he had no doubt that Medway still lived!” But did he? The reader is never told. Nothing further is said about the senator. Why build up his character and then abandon it? I hate loose ends.

Exploding death threatens The Spider!

Exploding death threatens The Spider!

In this story, Wentworth gets to use a lot of disguises. That’s what he is known for. And here, he appears as a strange spokesman for The Spider known as X-Ray. He also appears as Hugo Donne, a drug manufacturer, a window washer, and a porter. All with totally different appearances. Master of disguises!

The Spider gets to pick some locks, here. Just a plain lock pick of surgical steel, this time. No gadget with adjusting teeth. But still, he’s able to break into the Death House, and we must assume they don’t use cheap locks on prisons.

The big question for me was, why was it so vital for Dr. Gilmuir to be convicted of the murder of Mr. Mulligan. He’s been framed, and all efforts are made to send him to the chair. I was pleased and satisfied to find a very good answer at the end. The real killer had quite a good reason for his actions, after all. I had feared another one of those poorly-though-out motivations that sometimes pulp stories resort to. But not here. When things were explained, I was happy.

Want to read it? You can, thanks to ebook reprints and pulp replicas available today. No matter whether you prefer to hold an actual an actual magazine in your hand, or if you want the convenience of reading on your mobile device, you can read this Spider tale… and see if you agree with me.

Yes, this could have been a good Spider story. But too much was cut, so that the size of the story could be pared down to 41,000 words. It left you with a protagonist that you didn’t even know and couldn’t root for. So, the story, as it stands, does not get my recommendation. But if ever the missing sections are found and restored, this would be a pretty enjoyable Spider story. If only…