See the cover? That’s a dog. This is a great story, hands-down, QED. Any book that has a dog in a prominent role is automatically a winner. This is a rule that crosses genres: any scifi, mystery, fantasy, or western story that has a dog, jumps at least three points. (Westerns that also highlight the importance, not to mention the personalities, of the horses involved, gain five points. Science fiction tends to be more about cats, but that’s hearkening back to the “space-navy” side of the equation, rather than the “pulp Westerns IN SPACE” genre foundations.)
Needless to say, Vulcan the Great Dane is basically the co-hero of this novel, and it’s a story that is perfectly pleasing in almost every way. (It helps that this story follows #202, Prince of Evil, written by Theodore Tinsley and squarely in the with the salaciousness cranked up until the knob falls off but the intelligence turned to “Is this thing on?” A fine read, to be sure, but definitely a lesser effort.)
It’s one of those stories that showcase Walter B. Gibson’s adroitness for keeping The Shadow’s adventures fresh and interesting by varying the setting, genre, and supporting characters’ roles. In this case, rather than New York City, the little town of Northdale is the backdrop and the setting is a lonely estate mansion (Seven Oaks) on whom troubles already hang and disaster portends. The genre is, well, it’s still pulp noir but with added dollops of gothic melodrama; and there is a madwoman, her nearly-equally disturbed husband, their quasi-telepathic twins, a mysterious stranger, a weirdly chipper young doctor–and as mentioned, the main secondary hero (and, frankly, the most successful impromptu agent The Shadow has ever employed) is a dog.
So. It’s a dark and stormy night, (because of course it is) and a man with the initials C. T. is waylaid and robbed at the very gates of Seven Oaks. He’s Carl Thayer and he’s saved by the intervention of The Shadow–who has been trailing Clint Flenn’s mob for a while–and makes it to the house, there to receive sympathetic and medical treatment, mostly at the hands of Janice Melridge. Janice and Bob are the twenty year old twins who have apparently little to do but wait to come of age and worry over their mother’s condition, and when your mother spends most of her time talking about voices and banshees, and your father is getting frustrated to the point of choking her out, who wouldn’t be? So the middle-aged but still handsome Carl Thayer finds a warm welcome and proceeds to make the most of it.
Clint Flenn, meanwhile, finding the spoils from the opening brigandage rather measly, decides on kidnapping the Melridge moll for ransom as the next move. The Shadow himself is listening in on this conference, however, and and so begins a cat-and-mouse game that progresses through the halls of Seven Oaks, the streets of Northdale, and the cavern-fractured countryside beyond. To summarize events would be to spoil, and this is actually one of those stories that, even knowing Gibson’s penchant for twists and reversals, kept me guessing until the end.
There are no other agents in this particular story, which is fine, because once Vulcan gets recruited by The Shadow, he does a lot of heavy lifting, including one nick-of-time rescue during a three-way battle involving a box of incriminating evidence and a safe full of payroll deposits, that leaves Bob Melridge, his rescuee, completely baffled, heh.
We all have witnessed how terrifying The Shadow is to malefactors, evil-doers, thugs, and malcontents; the flip side of this is that he is a calming, reassuring, instantly trustworthy presence to the innocent, even if they’re the kind of innocent who don’t look it, having been thrust into a frame and are panicking and lashing out. Dogs, naturally, are no exception. Previous stories has seen The Shadow square off against hostile guard dogs, and either hiss or glare them into submission. Vulcan gets the hiss treatment and promptly begins play-fighting with The Shadow’s cloak sleeve, but we are also reminded that he’s a dog on whose judgment the family relies to begin with. And with good reason. (Vulcan also has had some police/guard training, which is what makes him a useful ally in the first place.)
Now, Gibson avoids the trap of making Vulcan too intelligent by letting him be governed by The Shadow, and The Shadow’s superb competence. It’s by making him the only agent to actually follow orders successfully, that allows him to be the hugely effective good boy he is. Harry Vincent is really lucky Vulcan didn’t decide to follow The Shadow home at the end.
The other characters are interesting as well, given the gothic melodrama / gangster noir genre blend of the book, briefly but adroitly handled by Gibson. Clint Flenn, the gang leader, is actually an interestingly authoritative figure, with an alluded-to history of success, successful alibis, and a proven record of cool-headedness, daring, and marksmanship. Mind you, if he’d been slightly less cool when that rat Trigg Unger started squealing that he’d cornered The Shadow down in the basement, he could have been on to something, but, well.
In some ways this is a throwback story: The Shadow spends much of his time hidden, in Shadow garb, only revealing himself at the very end of the novel; and the Lamont Cranston identity is used sparingly. There are multiple gunfights which end with a satisfying number of bodies–and there’s even an interestingly gruesome moment where The Shadow, providing cover for another escape, crashes his car into a barricade hiding entrenched crooks, sending bodies flying (and earning another concussion, but never mind.) He also pistol-whips a couple of crooks with his .45. If it’s the same style as the gun he used in Spoils of The Shadow, which has a hair-trigger and no safety catch, is it really safe to be using the butt end of the gun to slug people with, though? One wonders. Usually he just bashes people with the muzzle, but there’s an explicit mention of knocking out a sentry with the butt of the gun. Oh well.
There’s a lot more to say about this novel, in some ways, but in others, not really. It’s got gunfights, car chases, a really good boyo, haunted houses, madwomen, psychic twins, gangsters, double-crosses, inheritances, mysterious paintings overlooking events with a somber eye, alibis, taking the heat for your loved ones, and highway robbery. It’s got The Shadow protecting innocents, terrorizing crooks, and solving crimes with a discerning eye and strategic hand that proves why he is and always will be the master foe of evil.
Rated: I heard The Shadow’s ha-ha and I scrammed, boss.
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