So, The Creeping Death is the twenty-second The Shadow story, and was published in 1933. And it’s a bit strange to come back to after the more settled formula of the later Shadow books.
The Lamont Cranston persona is a colder, more impressive figure–less of the languid man-about-town and more of a) a financier chiefly interested in money and new inventions (Cranston would probably have quite a lot of SpaceX stock, one surmises), b) very obviously a disguise used by a dangerous and indomitable figure. But, then to remind us that we are in fact dealing with a master of disguise, there’s also the not-nearly-as-transparent Phineas Twambly, a doddering and nearly-deaf old man who couldn’t possibly be less of a threat to the men staking out the lobby of the Westbrook Falls Inn and eyeing each other like the predators they are.
Then there’s the plot, which–in good form for the earlier books–is carried primarily through the actions of the villains, and seen primarily through either their eyes or the eyes of the proxy hero, in this case Vic Marquette of the Secret Service. The Shadow himself lurks, listens in, silhouettes, menaces, and only just intervenes to tip the scales here and there, mostly just letting the bad guys play out their mummery amongst themselves with hilarious and deadly results. Until–well, you’d have to read the book to see. Heroes react; great heroes act; smart heroes decide when to act and when to stand back and utter a soft, grim, mocking laugh at the follies of others.
The titular creeping death is introduced in the first chapter, when a Mr. Jerry Fitzroy collapses and dies in his hotel room, only barely able to gasp out a few words–words seemingly overheard only by the hotel physician and detective. Some part of the mystery is cleared promptly, when Fitzroy is revealed to be a Secret Service agent, recently returned from a trip to the small town of Westbrook Falls. The gold coin in Fitzroy’s pocket is one of a strange kind that has been recently flooding the market: a strange alloy with the appearance and physical qualities of gold that still is not gold. The partridge feather in his pocket is a little more mysterious….but not to The Shadow.
And not, for very long, to the audience either, with the introduction of elderly inventor/chemist Lucien Partridge and his hidden laboratory in Westbrook Falls. Partridge has a business arrangement with several other American businessmen, who believe they are exploiting him for the synthetic gold which they receive and distribute. The reverse turns out to be the case…and, what’s more, Partridge’s network is worldwide: he has multiple contacts in multiple countries through which he is exchanging fake gold for real, which he has stored on the grounds and with which–and the creeping death–he intends to launch a reign of terror which will ultimately end with him becoming world emperor.
But in the meanwhile and somewhat more pressingly, he going to have to deal with some internal personnel and management problems first. You see, it has occurred to multiple branches of his organization that “fake gold out -> real gold in = somewhere, massive stockpile of real gold.” And the Americans, the French, and the Spaniards, all want a much bigger cut than what they’re getting.–and therein lies the meat of the story, watching them variously blunder, plot, counterplot, form alliances, sneak, backstab, and bluster as they jockey for position and information–all under the glittering eye and grotesque shadow of…The Shadow!
The villain himself, Lucien Partridge, is an interesting mix of megalomania and practicality. Yes, he wants to be the emperor of the world and believes he will be welcomed with open arms at the end of, well, a rain of terror–but he has a fairly chilling plan for enacting said terrorism, and a very practical one for bankrolling it. He’s resourceful and cunning enough to have agents in many countries and be collecting revenue from each of them. And he controls the Creeping Death, an insidious and almost undetectable method of murder which leaves its victims unmarked, able to travel far away from the cause of their death while leaving their murderer unsuspected. (Although he did have to knife Li Tan Chang to get its secrets. What happens in Shanghai stays in Shanghai.)
The Shadow’s usual agents are scarce this time. Harry Vincent gets about half a page of screentime, which might have contributed to why this mission had such smooth sailing. So the primary proxy hero is Vic Marquette, and he’s…okay. For a Fed.
And…the cover art is fantastic.
And that’s about all I have to say. This is a top-notch early Shadow story, and if you know the genre, know the author and his style, you know that means a rippin’ good yarn. You really can’t ask for better than that.
Rated: This your final warning, Jose! Those that disobey my word–die!
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