Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Spider Strain by Johnston McCulley

An amusing caper from the classic pulps
The Spider Strain, a novella by Johnston McCulley, was originally published in the April 8, 1919 edition of the pulp periodical Detective Story Magazine. McCulley is best known as the creator of the character Zorro, but during his prolific career as a writer for the pulps he created several successful recurring characters, among them The Spider. The Spider is a criminal supergenius who, despite being confined to a wheelchair, oversees a complex network of organized crime. John Warwick, in addition to being one of the criminal kingpin’s most trusted agents, is also romancing The Spider’s niece, Silvia. When Warwick decides to give up his life of crime, settle down, and marry his sweetheart, he must first ask for the boss’s blessing. The Spider informs him that he can have his freedom once he performs two final missions. The first is to steal a mysterious locket from the neck of a wealthy socialite. Warwick finds this task easier said than done, as his efforts are thwarted by an annoying adversary.

McCulley has written the tale in very simplistic prose, accessible to even a junior-high reading level. Nevertheless, it’s a brisk read with enough small twists and turns to keep the reader excited and looking forward to the next chapter. The intended surprise ending is more predictable than it should be, but not so obvious as to be offensive. Unfortunately, the least effective element of this novella is its protagonist. Warwick speaks in a voice that is like an overly exaggerated impression of Cary Grant. Every sentence ends in “What? My word!” Every man he encounters is either a “chap” or an “ass.” It‘s not even clear whether he’s supposed to be American or British, and the setting is never specified. While at the time I’m sure McCulley intended this manner of speech to be smart and hip, to the contemporary reader it gives the impression that Warwick is the least intelligent character in the book. He hardly seems capable of pulling off any of The Spider’s capers. On the other hand, his trusty Japanese valet, Togo, seems eminently competent by comparison.

Oddly enough, the second of The Spider’s two tasks for Warwick is never mentioned. This may be because The Spider Strain is the penultimate episode in this series, with one more installment remaining to cover Warwick’s final job for the master criminal. After reading this story, I’m not sure I want to follow Warwick on his last adventure, but McCulley’s writing is engaging enough that I’m interested in investigating some of his other characters. If you are in the mood for some classic pulp fiction, The Spider Strain is a light, entertaining read that will sufficiently satisfy your craving, but don’t expect to be blown away by it.

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