So it appears that I have been doing the brisk Police Commissioner Weston a disservice. He has not, in fact, ever been convinced of the presence of an invisible man, to the point of ordering his detectives to take appropriate actions when guarding doors and windows against said invisible murderer’s entry–or exit. It was actually Commissioner Barth.
Weston, you see, departed New York somewhere around mid-1934 for a heroic stint establishing a….tyrannical police state in a dubiously-named South American nation, okay. His replacement, Wainwright Barth, is something special, even by pulp fiction incompetent detective standards. (It’s explained that Barth lobbied intensively for the job and got it mostly because a) being a former financier, he was able to handle the administrative portions of it, b) absolutely no one else wanted to. It’s also explained that Weston gets his job back very quickly once he returns.)
This era of Shadow stories is interesting, since globe-trotting millionaire Lamont Cranston maintains a friendship with both police commissioners, frequently gets invited out to crime scenes, and is solicited for his opinion on tricky matters. The difference is that while Weston will begrudgingly acknowledge when Cranston has a good point, Barth gets agitated when his own investigative incompetence is highlighted. Needless to say, Cranston handles both with aplomb and, often, the trailing echo of a whispered laugh.
So. An invisible murderer. An incompetent police force. The Shadow. What else does this book contain? Well, for one: a mad scientist, an ex-aviator and soldier of fortune, a couple of majority stockholders, a group of swindlers, a couple of slick gang leaders, and more gun-toting mobbies than you can shake a stick at.
The majority stockholders have lost a lot of money to a trio of swindlers. However, one of them still has a lot of faith in the mad scientist he is funding–despite the failure of the last big invention, which also lost money–and, in order to assuage the doubts of other board members, arranges a viewing of the latest: a device for the devisualization of solids. Lamont Cranston, wearing his tech investor hat (would he be a SpaceX shareholder today, one wonders….), and Commissioner Barth are along for the ride. We know there is going to be major hijinx, because we have also seen the two main mob leaders (themselves, of course, acting on behalf of the Big Boss), meticulously planning a hideout and alibis.
The devisualization test subject is Miles Crofton, a former aviator and soldier of fortune; a capable man with some unsavory associations in his past. He disappears, but then also escapes the laboratory. Threatening letters signed by “The Unseen Killer” are found almost immediately, and, shortly, one of the swindlers gets murdered in his own home. The doors and windows are locked and there is no sign of forced entry.
To give some credit to Commissioner Barth, he does propose a second test of the devisualization device–casually volunteering ace detective Joe Cardona as the guinea pig, heh–but the mad scientist’s sudden death (accompanied by another threatening letter) only reinforces his belief that there really is an unseen killer around. The Unseen Killer promptly demands that the remaining two swindlers turn their ill-gotten money back over to him, on pain of….death. The Shadow, of course, has sussed out the disappearance, and the basics of the ongoing scheme, but with the death-by-gunshot-wound of the first lead, he and his agents must scour the underworld for the next, looking for both the plotters and the not-really-invisible man–and the unseen mastermind behind it all.
And so it goes, down to a very satisfying climax indeed.
So, at the slight risk of spoiling a 92-year-old novel, Miles Crofton is innocent and in fact becomes one of the Shadow’s agents. He’s got rather the most thankless task of any agent–yes, even more so than Harry Vincent–because he’s the private pilot to one of the most badass aviators in all of pulp or adventure fiction.
Speaking of agents, they’re present but far in the background. Harry Vincent and Cliff Marsland end up on the active side of a kidnap-slash-rescue operation, for once. Jericho Druke gets to pop up, bang some heads together, and then play innocent once the police arrive. Pietro the fruitcart vendor makes his second and I believe last appearance, possibly because it’s lampshaded how conspicuous and improbable he is on a stakeout team. And the hunchy, ambling Hawkeye provides one of the biggest breaks in the case, by uncovering the Unseen Killer’s hideout spot.
Gibson’s Shadow stories didn’t contain much outright funny bits, but there’s more than a generous sprinkling of dry, sly humor to them–such as Joe Cardona’s uneasiness at being voluntold to become the next Invisible Man, or Cranston’s missed sarcasm to Commissioner Barth. (A different story sees Cranston and a tubby civilian banker get taken hostage and encouraged to stick ’em up. The narrator observes: “[civilian’s] hands went up as if impelled by springs. Cranston’s followed at a more leisurely pace.”)
Rated: Really, Commissioner? Really?