So this one was published in August of 1933, written by Walter B. Gibson alias Maxwell Grant, cover art by George Rozen.
This is just a really superior Shadow story. It’s just really good and perfectly pleasing, and it made me feel happy.
It’s kind of hard to say more than that, so instead, I’ll talk about how Maxwell Grant (nee Walter B. Gibson) made his hero effective by focusing on the villains.
Think about standard plot structure: the hero wins, the villain loses. Most authors begin with this premise and work outwards from there. They craft from the top down to create situations where the villains lose. This is why the Death Star had a conveniently-placed ventilation shaft, why the hive swarm goes immobile instead of berserk when the queen is deactivated, why Sauron poured so much of his own being and power into the One Ring that destroying it destroys him utterly. At the more tactical level, it’s why the gangsters playing poker in the front room keep their backs strategically to the window, or a sentry decides not to investigate the rustling and muffled cursing noises from that bramble patch–but does go chase a pebble down the dark hallway. Most authors position their villains for failure. Then they allow the hero to win (sometimes after a stiff struggle getting through the trench run, sure, but still.)
However, Gibson reversed this. He planned how his villains should win, and then engineered a way to prevent them. For instance: mobsters under command of a ruthless mob leader and supported with a dark ray that will suppress alarms and opposition (so no witnesses, no police, no watchmen), and equipped with explosives, guns, and getaway cars are at one point preparing to take on the New City Bank. They’re a tough, picked crew and they know their stuff. Fifteen minutes are all they need. What can The Shadow possibly do to stop them? Well, he could get there first, so they don’t ever even get their fifteen minutes, and then he could have backup arrive to provide cross-fire.
So, he’d need to know where they’re going and when. He needs to have access to Goldy Tancred’s inner circle, and Goldy isn’t accepting visitors. So: Clyde Burke and Burbank bug Goldy’s apartment, and, this not even being enough once Goldy develops an entirely new, healthy respect for operational security measures, The Shadow drops in and goes through the waste-paper basket. So Harry Vincent befriends the unlucky young engineer-inventor who seems to have gotten mixed up in this whole mess and tries to find out what he knows about the Black Hush. So The Shadow knows the target, the time, and their general plan. So, when the (remaining) gangsters flee to their countryside lair to lick their wounds and plot subsequent days’ revenge, The Shadow knows where they are and also (sigh) that Harry Vincent needs rescuing.
Villains are never stupid, although the monomaniacal supervillain-types do tend to be somewhat dense, admittedly. As a whole, they are adaptive, clever, and increasingly well-prepared for the physical threat that The Shadow represents (multiple cars with machine guns, and plenty of hand grenades: standard anti-Shadow ordnance.) Goldy Tancred, for instance, discovers the wiretap almost immediately and begins using it for counter-surveillance, flushing out Clyde Burke as a spy, and from then on putting all orders in writing and then burning the notes.
Pity he didn’t try re-sweeping the whole apartment for bugs after nullifying the first one….
Gibson’s Shadow stories have an enduring fascination, because, instead of making the villains weaker than the hero, he made the hero stronger than them. He lets the struggle play out on a level just slightly higher, and slightly better thought out, than the zero ground most heroes (i.e., BATMAN) operate at.
All that being said, what’s this one about, and is it just another pulp action story, told at breakneck speed so the incongruities of plot don’t register until later?
So we start off in a swanky hotel, where two groups are gathered. One is a group of mobsters, prominently starring one Goldy Tancred–who has requested police presence, just to keep things peaceable–and the other a conference of electrical engineers. The hotel is suddenly hit by a strange, complete, darkness that deactivates electrical and mechanical devices and can only be barely pierced by acetylene torches–such as are being carried by a small hit-squad that brutally assassinates…a random engineer at the banquet. The obvious conclusion is that Goldy Tancred and his ilk, in the west ballroom, were the targets, and the engineer in the east room was killed by mistake. Goldy certainly seems to believe this, as he promptly goes into seclusion, but although New York’s finest ace detective considers the motive clear, The Shadow thinks differently, and moves to investigate.
What is Goldy’s real game? Where is the source of the Black Hush? How is Harry Vincent going to screw up this time?
Read it and find out…
Rated: There’s also a thrilling death-from-above entry via autogiro, it’s kind of awesome.