The Shadow #229 – Gems of Jeopardy

shadow_magazine_vol_1_229So, as the well-informed know, there are around three hundred and eighty-odd Shadow stories, written over a period of eighteen years. The vast majority were written by The Shadow’s original creator, Walter B. Gibson, under the penname Maxwell Grant, but there were several other authors who were pinch-hitters as well. Lester Dent (the Doc Savage guy) wrote a handful, and some hack named Bruce Elliott wrote the last twentyish novels after Gibson was fired. I haven’t reached those yet, but I’m assured they’re dreadful. Anyhow, after Gibson, the best of The Shadow’s authors was Theodore Tinsley, a pulp novelist.

I use the term deliberately. Gibson wrote his stories with ceaseless crossings between genres–sometimes straight-up mystery, sometimes proto-superheroic, sometimes gothic melodrama, sometimes hardboiled gangster noir–to the point where The Shadow is almost its own genre in itself. Tinsley, on the other hand, wrote pulp fiction and was proud of it. Although he approximates Gibson’s handling of the characters remarkably well, Tinsley is cruder than Gibson–in plot, in execution…and in taste. Stay tuned, we’ll get there when we get there.

A little more discussion before we get into the plot. The Shadow had been around over ten years (and two hundred twenty-eight previous volumes) at this point, and had run a huge gamut of foes, from corrupt board members to evil aviators, corrupt politicians in distant cities, backwoods intrigues, underwater mad scientists, desert mad scientists, swamp mad scientists, isolated ancestral castle mad scientists, evil psychologists, more evil-overlord-wannabes complete with secret societies than you can shake a stick at, several would-be world emperors, and…thugs trying to hijack armored cars. The audience has seen quite a lot, to the point where it would be difficult to top–and futile to try. It’s hard to take the narrator’s breathless assertion that this car chase through Manhattan, or this jewel robbery, or this attempt to hostilely take over a company is the most daring, dangerous, and brilliant of The Shadow’s career when…it’s really not, come on. We’ve seen him take on Doctor Moquino, Zemba, and Zanigew…some dude wearing a mask of his own face really kind of doesn’t compare.

But, if that sounds like “The Shadow is now boring,” please continue reading, because that is definitely not the case. Gibson and his editorial cohort seemed to recognize this, and, I think deliberately, made them simple again. Throughout the later part of 1941 (or at least, the last handful of books I’ve read, which I’m plugging through in numerical order), the high-concept dramatics have been backed down a notch in favor of simpler, lower-key–but no less interesting, and no less intense–stakes. 

Okay, so that being said, what’s the plot?

Well, first there are a couple of murders, a burned-down house, and a map which has had the Atlantic coastline ripped away. That’s for starters. Then there’s Jerome Linton, a business acquaintance of Lamont Cranston’s, whom he and Margo Lane witness dumping an already-dead body to fake a hit-and-run accident…

Twelve boxes of jewels have been smuggled into America by the brutal, treacherous ex-Balkan Colonel and his beautiful, but absolutely no less brutal and treacherous wife, Princess Zena. They have no sooner disposed of anyone else who could identify them, when they are confronted by the sinister Mr. X, who, somehow forewarned of their (money’s) arrival, has laid an ambush. Zena sacrifices her husband and escapes, but with a burning hatred of Mr. X and a no less burning desire to get her jewels back. So she murders a woman and steals her clothes and car and drives off…

Meanwhile, The Shadow is looking into Jerome Linton and the links between him and the previous murders. He’s aided (surprisingly competently) by a roster of his agents: Harry Vincent, Hawkeye, Moe Shrevnitz, Clyde Burke, and Margo Lane. And when I say “surprisingly competently,” I mean Harry Vincent doesn’t even get captured and tortured through any fault of his own! I mean, yes, that is him on the cover, sure, but it wasn’t actually his fault! Margo Lane and Moe Shrevnitz make an actual competent team in following their suspects! They do need rescuing, uh, twice…but they’re under cover and shooting back gamely when The Shadow arrives! Clyde Burke…actually doesn’t do anything himself, but he supposedly lends his face for The Shadow to press an interrogation. (I have a dubious here, because Clyde has been described as small and wiry; The Shadow, master of disguise that he is, is very tall. And it isn’t a phone interview. Anyhow.) Soon enough, a $50,000.00 satchel of jewels and a notorious fence make their appearance.

And so it goes.

So, yes, Margo Lane has finally turned up in-novels, and her presence is not a negative. Mostly because having an actual damsel on the team makes Harry Vincent automatically 83% less likely to end up in the “distressed damsel” role of the novel. But, barring a few false starts, she’s shaping up to be a competent agent in her own right, cool under pressure, good with a gun, and surprisingly resourceful.

The other standout character from this novel is its principal antagonist, Princess Zena. She’s a brunette with shapely (we are often reminded) legs….on one of which, tucked into her garter in a flat leather sheath, is a razor-sharp knife that she has great expertise and zero hesitation in using. She’s managed to survive the war-torn disruption of her native (carefully unnamed) country; she’s survived the exile from it (by shoving her husband into an assassin’s bullet and then faking her own death in quicksand); and she’s utterly determined to find revenge and her twelve boxes of stolen crown jewels. She’s utterly ruthless, but she’s also intelligent, charismatic, and enormously proactive throughout the story….by which I mean she has a body count almost as high as Mr. X’s by the time they finally meet, and there’s an actual villain-versus-villain duel which is kind of just awesome.

And that’s about all I have to say, because that really should be enough. This book is kind of just awesome: it’s correctly paced, and the stakes are just high enough; it’s well-characterized, with almost all The Shadow’s agents getting a chance to shine (or bleed) (….sigh); the action scenes, while definitely gorier than the norm, could still pass muster by the Hayes’ Code and are fast and satisfying. There’s a number of good villains, an underground lair (this one includes bonus waterfall), and The Shadow scaring the crap out of some henchmen when, in that hidden and secure base, eerie laughter begins to echo

Rated: I forgot to to mention, while in that lair he uses their phone to call Burbank, too. Awesome.

The Shadow Magazine #22 – The Creeping Death

creeping-death-600x1008-1 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!

The Shadow Magazine #42 – Mox

shadow_magazine_vol_1_42So. One of the ways that The Shadow’s mysterious ways remained mysterious is by not including his point of view. He is shown, in certain stories, either as a gliding, cloaked-and-hatted shape through the, uh, somewhat dispassionate lens of the omniscient narrator–observing and describing his actions but offering little concrete commentary on his motivations.

Some books don’t even have an alter-ego for The Shadow–only spectral laughter and sinister whispers; some books have him assume an entirely new personality for the length of the story, discarding it and revealing himself only to thwart evil at the climax.

Alternatively, sight of The Shadow is filtered through the eyes of a POV character…who is generally far, far from omniscient. This contributes to the overall mystery (since they are generally baffled and/or completely wrong about their deductions,) or to the plot (because Harry Vincent is going to a) get clobbered and kidnapped, b) screw up his mission. Sigh.)

In this case, the narrative viewpoint largely follows Joe Cardona, currently an Acting Inspector and generally regarded as the ace sleuth of New York City’s police force–largely because of assistance from a certain black-clad force of justice and vengeance that he cannot formally admit exists, especially to his skeptic boss. “Mox” is Jarvis Moxton, a wealthy speculator whose name soon becomes of interest to investigators looking into the death of contracting agent, Schuyler Harlew. (How that happens is admittedly via a long, long shot, but for such deductions is The Shadow famed.) It transpires that Mox–Moxton–has been locating inventors of promising but underfunded projects, luring them to his countryside lair with promises of money and support, and there–at the stroke of midnight–destroying them! The Shadow puts the pieces together just a tad too late to save another unlucky victim, but he vows that no others will so die!

He succeeds, too, in a brief-but-awesome battle that a) saves an innocent life, b) decimates Mox’s henchmen, c) reveals Mox’s true nature to local authorities, and d) forces Mox into flight. Local authorities, in the person of the cool and cantankerous Sheriff Junius Tharbel, soon seem to have cracked open the case–much to the displeasure of the visiting Joe Cardona, who begins a bitter and one-sided rivalry as a result–but the question still remains to be solved as to where–or who–of the suspects Mox truly is. Junius Tharbel has jurisdiction; he also has the scoop. And a material witness. And also a dog….and yet who seemingly has more interest in going off huntin’ with his country hick friends (you know: the short fat one and the tall thin one) than in tracking down Mox.

The dog is a Dalmatian by the way, which are not actually great pets. They have a high prey drive and can be very aggressive. Also, they have a congenital tendency to deafness and need special food because they also have a tendency to kidney disease. Anyway, the dog is also a material witness in the case. But how does Junius Tharbel actually plan to crack this case–and, more importantly, does The Shadow?

I’ve also talked at length before about how Walter B. Gibson never cheapens his work by letting The Shadow’s power level vary strategically with circumstances. It’s never conveniently just one notch above his current adversaries: it’s always at eleven. Sometimes The Shadow mows through opponents easily: if, for instance, he’s up against a handful of disunified, poorly-coordinated mooks in a dimly-lit area, or if he gets into a hand-to-hand fight with someone whose only combat experience is brawling with other thugs. Sometimes, he struggles rather more–giant Mongol henchmen are always a toughie; and gangsters prepared with anti-Shadow ordnances such as machine guns and spotlights, definitely make things very hot indeed. And sometimes he does get flat-out beaten to the punch, such as when he attempted to jump a squad of Japanese jiu-jitsu masters, or accidentally triggered a voice-activated murder robot.

But when The Shadow is on the struggling side, Gibson never cheats on his behalf to even things back up. Mongol warriors don’t suddenly lose their fighting skills or their brains; they get outmaneuvered, or they end up fighting Jericho Druke, or they get shot. Murder robots…actually, I forget how that one got solved, that was kind of weird. Spotlights get shot out. Carloads of crooks get sniped from mobile or covered positions; they don’t all die, but they are scattered and forced to retreat. Ninja masters get the snot scared out of them in a darkened room and The Shadow gets his last laugh. There’s a real-world logic to the winning of these conflicts that lends them–no matter how outlandish the situation–a verisimilitude, a weight and tension, that’s absent from other stories of the kind.

Clyde Burke liaises with Cardona and Tharbel, and The Shadow glides about in the background, communicating via phone calls and whispers so sinister his own agent gets the chills. There’s a spidery henchman who kills on the stroke of midnight, a death-pit, hidden rooms, secret identities, and red herrings galore.

And so it goes.

This is really a superb Shadow story, so much so that it received a follow-up, Crime County, several years later, starring Junius Tharbel and a dog named–Mox.

Rated: W-A-D-E-H-O-S-T-H-I-S-T-H-E-S-H-A-D-O-W

The Shadow # 203 – Crime at Seven Oaks

shadow_magazine_vol_1_203See 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.

The Shadow Magazine #80 – The Condor

shadow_magazine_vol_1_80 The Shadow really came into his own during the mid 1930s, volumes #65-99ish. Before that he and the author were still feeling out their niche; after that, well, even primordial heroes start to eventually feel their age and the effects of all those concussions. But that run is really superb. The Shadow is at the peak of his mental and physical prowess; and his organization as well as the scope of his operations expands, while–and this is important–still staying reasonable.

At his core, The Shadow is a hero who avenges crime.  Sometimes those crimes are murder; more often they are gang violence; and even more often, it’s theft, either outright or white-collar variants such as fraud or embezzlement. (One of the great differences between The Shadow and current-day heroes is that theft is a crime seen as a crime and deserving of a harsh punishment no matter who the intended victims are. Even cigar-smoking businessmen in suits are assumed to have a right to their property, to defend it, and to seek its legal, reasonable increase. Nowadays every single one of would be considered a villain by default, unworthy of protection or recompense. Anyhow.)

Now, quite often the thieves and/or murderers have delusions of grandeur (and sometimes they aren’t quite delusions) and Step 4 is “take over the world” / “reign of terror” and these are usually more colorful, and somewhat harder to stop than your ordinary crop of gangsters. At least the gangsters tend to either drop dead or surrender when the cops arrive. The megalomaniacs fight it out to the end, or crawl away aided by their faithful minions, hissing banefully.

This book manages to combine both types, and very satisfactory it is to see.

So. Cliff Marsland–who once did a stint in Sing Sing for a crime he did not commit, who is now known in gangdom as a man-killer, a tough torpedo, and a mortal enemy of The Shadow and whom none suspect is actually an agent of The Shadow–meets up with and receives a mission from his once-pal, Luffer Cadley. Cadley himself received a tip-off from the now deceased Cuckoo Gruzen: that a big payoff awaits one who can present the Blue Pearl to The Condor at Mountview Lodge. Cadley is bringing Cliff into it, because he has enemies still itching to rub him out and needs the help. Cliff accepts, because he and his chief know that by following the small crime, a much larger one can be uncovered and greater damage prevented.

So. There’s the plot: acquire the Blue Pearl, bring to The Condor, and then find out what the heck his deal is. Simple, sure. But the path that leads from A to B to C is filled with perplexities, difficulties, and dynamite. This is one of those stories where to summarize what happens is to simply state the entire plot, and then where’s the fun in that? But there are mysteries involved (that are actually mysterious and have importance, and whose solution proves the solver to be that much more intelligent and observant than other individuals–without making those others out to immediately be idiots); there are thrills (such as, Henry Arnaud deciding that he really doesn’t want a visit from the local police right at that moment, and having to devise a quick escape via a third-story window); there’s plenty of action, strategy, double-crosses, intrigue, secret identities, and also a couple of random Singhalese giants, because no pulp action story is actually complete without giants. No, really. Doc Savage and Tarzan provide their own; Tom Swift has Koko; Barsoom has the Green Martians….

Huh. Giants, and crocodiles. Make a note of it.

Anyhow. Several of The Shadow’s agents are involved in this one, including the usual mention-only of Miles Crofton (poor guy never gets a chance to shine). Most prominently, these are Cliff Marsland and (siiiiiiiigh) Harry Vincent, but Clyde Burke pops up here and there, and there’s mention of Hawkeye and Moe. The Shadow himself gets to use the lesser-known Henry Arnaud persona as well as his favored guise of Lamont Cranston. The latter persona also gets to support and advise his friend Commissioner Barth after the theft of the Blue Pearl by a masked thug, right under their very noses….

Vic Marquette (still of the Secret Service, and therefore a hero to be lauded, rather than the FBI stooge he later becomes), also pops up.

So, villains. The Condor is a cross between the megalomaniac and the professor. He’s an independently wealthy retiree who decided some time ago that crime might be more risky, but it’s also a hell of a lot more fun and rewarding than doing things the slow, steady, legal way. Physically, he is of a birdlike (guess which kind) mould, especially as far as his voice, and his weirdly strong, thin-fingered hands go. He’s intelligent and cunning; but mostly his success lies in the way he has planned for it. Rather than just recruiting thugs off the street–and then having them ruin things directly–he allows them to self-select, ensuring that only those capable enough can reach him in the first place; and then also by including a time element, ensures that he also gets patient, disciplined crooks, too. As a result, his organization is effective, competent, and cohesive–and it’s not a one-man job taking it down.

What’s more, The Condor is more of a nickname, and less of a straightforward gimick, the way The Cobra, or The Gray Fist, or The Python (snigger) was, because as dangerous as those guys admittedly were…they were really frikkin’ goofy, come on. He’s a dude who screeches occasionally and gathers plunder that others have killed/acquired, and he’s very serious about it, and so is the author.

Talking about the cover: it’s always awesome to see covers and titles that directly reference something, a scene or idea in the story; something that’s intriguing and easy on the eyes just on the surface, but that gains incredible depths of meaning once you’ve read the book. It means a lot more once you read the book, but even just on it’s own, it’s pretty darned intriguing nevertheless. (Also doesn’t add a gigantic proboscis to the silhouette. Those are annoying. CANNONICALLY all you can see of The Shadow in Shadow getup is his blazing eyes, and that’s IF he’s not hiding his face anyway. Artistic license, ugh.)

PS: I am not going to review the final Shiwan Khan story, he dies, THE END, good riddance, YOU BELONG DEAD.

Rated: Youse mugs keep them dukes up! I said up!

The Shadow #97 – The Voodoo Master

shadow_magazine_vol_1_97So having gone on at length as to how Shiwan Khan–who, having a positive gluttony for punishment, just kept coming back to New York to receive his due whalloping for four books in a row–is a decidedly unimpressive supervillain and deserve no such credit as “archrival” or “nemesis,” here is a rundown of the first appearance to a character who does make a worthy rival to The Shadow: Doctor Rodil Mocquino, the Voodoo Master.

In brief, my thesis is: this book is perfectly executed to show that Mocquino is a supremely dangerous, intelligent, ambitious enemy–and that The Shadow is more powerful, insightful, and and deadly than he….while still retaining suspense, interpersonal danger, and plenty of excitement.

The plot begins with the police acquiring a zombi, not that they know what he is exactly or how to spell it. Ace Inspector Cardona, who has something of a clew now and then, calls in Doctor Rupert Sayre–who calls for his sometimes-client, sometimes-superior, Lamont Cranston, whom he believes to be The Shadow. Yes, it’s out of the ordinary for an M.D. to call in a civilian to make a diagnosis, but then Dr. Sayre doesn’t have that much experience with West Indian superstition, crime lords, methods of subtle and unsubtle psychological torture, and fiendish plots.

Our heroes soon learn details of the last item: a voodoo cult in the very heart of New York, figuring highly placed members of society–who have been programmed or lured into observing with fiendish glee the voodoo deaths of their own close relatives, their friends or employers…. deaths in effigy which are soon duplicated mysteriously in the flesh, leaving said cultees in the possession of, often, great wealth. More to the point, the former zombi, Stanton Wallace, fears for the life of his employer, Texan millionaire Dunley Bligh. Bligh’s situation is set up for a pretty seamless murder. He is on board an ocean liner that has already left port, there to receive a consignment of jewels from the ship’s purser; he has heart issues and takes daily medications at a clinical dosage that is just barely below the fatal one.

Observe how there is a greater but currently immobile threat–The Voodoo Master and his ring of minions (currently numbering about twenty. Keep an eye on that number, because it declines over the course of this novel, heh)–and also an innocent in immediate danger, elsewhere. Standard stuff, obvious, sure: but where The Shadow shows his superiority is that he doesn’t rush headlong to the rescue, committing his full strength in one single, less important, direction. (As, for instance, Tarzan, John Carter, Batman, or Feanor would.)

The Shadow has already located the Voodoo Master’s cult headquarters; he leaves it under close observation by his most competent agents (cough, not Harry Vincent, cough.) Mocquino cannot move without this information reaching The Shadow; and via Burbank and a wireless radio, any such move can be traced or countered. While not negated, the greater threat is controlled. This leaves The Shadow clear to move to the rescue of Dunley Bligh. An artificial crisis is not created by having the hero completely withdraw the field and leave the villain free to act.

Needless to say, the other way The Shadow > other heroes is that he also succeeds when he sets out to rescue the innocent bystander. One of the cheesy but utterly endearing parts of the early to mid-stage Shadow novels is the author’s fullhearted intention to make his hero awesome by any means necessary, even if it was offscreen. The Shadow reaches the outbound ocean liner with the cover story of participating in an aeronautic stunt flight to land an autogiro on a moving vessel, and the audience, like Dunley Bligh, learns from the ship’s purser that “The landing was perfect!” Because of course it was. 

Meanwhile, while an artificial crisis has been avoided, a genuine one results: Stanton Wallace sends Cardona and a posse of headquarters detectives into a trap. Doctor Mocquino’s men get the drop on the detectives and hold them at gunpoint just long enough for everyone to evacuate the voodoo cult headquarters.–Just time enough for Hawkeye to put a call into Burbank, and a strange, swift, wingless plane to swing wide of the Newark airport and drop a passenger off on a rooftop (the landing, again, perfect, although we don’t get to see how well Miles Crofton handles the take-off. Honestly, poor Crofton has like the most thankless job of all The Shadow’s agents, considering how he gets shown up almost every time he’s on screen.)

The Shadow manages to save Cardona and the detectives (remember: not like other heroes), and to thin out Mocquino’s minions–but, the Voodoo Master manages to completely vanish.

This section of the novel is where Mocquino begins to show his own quality–by managing his disappearing act in the first place, smoothly enough that the police never do figure it out; by continuing on the offensive and defensive;  and by maintaining enough firepower to continue to be a threat, even to The Shadow and his agents.

Doctor Mocquino traces the source of the leak to his organization backwards–to Stanton Wallace–but also forwards, placing preemptive countermeasures in the house of the next most likely cultist to be spotted and interrogated by either the police or The Shadow. What’s more, those countermeasures are effective. (Mind you, if Dr. Sayre had more experience at the spy game, and Sergeant Markham wasn’t a moron, Mocquino would have had much less success. Alas. Note, however, that Cardona is allowed to show his intelligence by calling Markham out for the blockhead he is.)

Anyhow, the tension remains high, because The Shadow is physically injured while making his escape, and Doctor Sayre’s combination of over-caution and inexperience prevents him from taking the correct measures. Also, (sigh) Harry Vincent has walked directly into a trap along with Stanton Wallace and needs to be rescued, but never mind. You’d think that these are straits dire enough in themselves, but no: Mocquino continues on the offensive, sending minions to capture Doctor Sayre (they escape with their lives only because The Shadow is too physically weak to pursue them, and are terrified by the notion that an actual sorcerer ghost is after them.)

“The Shadow is not human!” he gasped. “He is what I say—a ghost! Bullets pass through him like a vapor! We do not doubt your power, master. But The Shadow, too, has power—”
Manuel was nodding. Arilla kept on: “At the old house!” he panted. “I have talked with those who fought there. No bullets could harm The Shadow! He advanced in the face of guns! At Rathcourt’s—I have talked with Manuel—let him speak—”
“I saw The Shadow at Rathcourt’s,” put in Manuel, promptly. “I saw guns pointed toward his heart. I saw those weapons fired. One would have thought that the cartridges were blank—”
“And to-day,” added Arilla, “I fired point-blank. My aim was perfect! My bullet did not even stop The Shadow’s laugh!”
Mocquino was glowering. Sayre, turning, saw the fearful expressions on the faces of the Voodoo Master’s minions. Harry and Stanton were looking on, elated. Sayre saw a chance for a conclusive statement.
“They are right, Mocquino,” expressed the physician. “Scientifically and from a medical standpoint, The Shadow is superhuman.”

And while this doesn’t fool Mocquino for more than a few minutes, there’s a wonderful moment where he’s definitely worried.

Anyhow: the plot therefore continues to a satisfactory climax, with another voodoo ritual upcoming and Harry Vincent and Stanton Wallace making guest appearances therein; with the police still officially and unofficially at a complete loss; and with The Shadow’s remaining agents also definitely worried about their chief’s physical ability to participate in the upcoming fight. 

(Mind you, Doctor Mocquino has now lost so many minions he can’t afford to post an outside guard. Heh.)

And so it goes.

I’m all out of things to say, but it’s one of the best. Even if the guy on the cover does look like he got stung by a bee.

QuikReview: Oblivion (2013)

So I watched Oblivion, a 2013 movie scifi movie starring predominantly Tom Cruise.

Now, I’ve opined at length as to the fact that straight scifi movies tend not to be very good. This is because a) filmmakers are stupid, b) they think their audiences are stupid, too. Most SF movies only achieve greatness synthetically, by cribbing off other genres, especially Westerns, but occasionally also horror, or even war-stories. (Pssst, has anyone noticed that Aliens is actually a Western? Everyone thinks it’s an action movie, but it’s got the Red Injuns, the cocky cavalry detachment with the inexperienced leader and the experienced and knowledgeable civilians….)

Anyway, much to my surprise, Oblivion is a straight scifi movie, and it’s….good! It has a simple and unexceptional but solid plot, and it relies on its characters and worldbuilding to reveal that plot point by point and–crucially–twist by twist (there’s a reveal about halfway through that made me actually sit up and grin.) Now, at a certain point it largely gives up on the thoughtful, measured approach and leans hard into the by-golly-I-have-an-explodey-things-budget-and-I’m-gonna-use-it syndrome, but please note I said “leans” not “dives” and entirely omitted “headlong.” The second half of the movie had more than enough built-up good will to keep my attention, but the thing with scifi movies is that they should never try to explain themselves out loud. See a), above. This movie did very, very well when it showed its protagonist–and its audience–what was going on; it only started to fumble when it switched over to telling.

What is there to show, then? Well, Tom Cruise is Jack Harper, Tech-49, who with his communications officer/lover/partner Vika, are the last humans left on Earth after an absolutely devastating war with the alien Scavs that, among other things, destroyed the moon. Most of the human population is on Titan, and some of it is on the orbital space station, the Tet. They have been mind-wiped prior to their mission, because….

Jack maintains the drone fleet that protects the ocean-water-sucking thingies that are destroying what’s left of the earth for power. (Why not just mine some comets, asks no screenwriter ever.) There are still some remnant Scavs on Earth that attack the drones and the power platforms. Vika is his mission control and interface with Command. The two are an effective team, but there are still some conflicts. Jack has dreams of the future and thoughts of the past; Vika resolutely suppresses such things. Jack has a relaxed view of orders and is fully aware that Command has them on a very long leash; Vika has a much stronger belief in regulations.

And then, a signal beamed from Earth brings an ancient spacecraft back to ground….a spacecraft containing living human crewmembers. Living, that is, until Jack’s own drones destroy all but one of the sleep-pods, utterly ignoring his orders to stand down. The sole survivor is Julia, a woman who refuses to reveal anything more to Jack, Vika, or Command until she retrieves the flight recorder from her ship…and shows them the truth. At about this point, Morgan Freeman also enters the picture, and I do have to ask: if Earth is that destroyed, where’d his cigars come from?

And so it goes with the movie, having accumulated this many questions, starting to tip over into revealing the answers (except the one about the cigars.) And so it goes, with the one problem that it reveals rather too many answers and in rather too bald-face a manner for my views.

Other good stuff: the cinematography of this film is really good. Like, I watched it entirely on my phone and I was watching for those little triggering points that normally break my suspension of disbelief (s/a: mysterious, additional light sources when there should not be light sources), and I noticed how good it was. Apparently a chunk of the movie was filmed on location….in Iceland, lending a barren, surreal, beautiful backdrop that works very well indeed. The sets and designs are also very good. Tom Cruise does an expert job as the personable, handsome hero; Morgan Freeman, well, Morgan-Freemans his way through dialogue that is 99% exposition as only Morgan Freeman can or could. Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko are incredibly outmatched in this movie, talent-wise, which is a shame, but they do their best and, in Riseborough’s case, mostly match up to the challenge.

Okay so, although I’ve spent a long while in this review complaining about the movie when it shifts focus to the action, I will also state that the action scenes themselves are largely quite good….at first, when they don’t involve humans. The drones are an incredible threat / weapon / ally, and  it’s an annoying waste of potential that the movie ends up ultimately wimping out and choosing the cheap (explodey) way of making those bits be exciting. That being said, the cinematography still makes everything look good, the characterization makes them be tense and engaging, and, yeah, it’s pretty good.

Overall, I do think that the movie could have been better if it maintained a better balance between its initial, more thoughtful tone and the faster-paced finale (honestly, delete half the expository dialogue and you wouldn’t have to change another thing else), I still have to admit straight-up that, yeah, it’s pretty good.

Rated: Oh wow, you’re in luck, Julie. There’s two of them for you now!

ReReview: Tactics of Mistake – Gordon R. Dickson

tctcsfmstb1981Trouble not the scholar among his books, for if he also has a pulse rifle and jump troopers, Mark V underwater bulldozer tanks, favorable local terrain, and an incompetent commander, he can make things very hot for you indeed.

So, the book begins with the introduction of Cletus Grahame, a new-bird Colonel with three months’ active duty under his belt–and a Medal of Honor–testing out theories for the fourth volume of his series on tactical applications. He plans on writing twenty of them. He does not explicitly plan on becoming the founding father to a nation of warrior gods, but, y’know, sometimes things just kinda happen….

This book is about his manipulations of the socioeconomic and social cosmos to provide both the material for his next sixteen volumes, and to guarantee that they will be used and read…by people who can use them and know how to read them. Cletus Grahame’s goal is to create a world of people who can think thoughts the same way he can does, fight the same way he fights, and plan the same way he plans. A world of warrior-scholars, invincible.

Yep, quite an ambition. No, no one else takes him seriously either….until he starts winning.

What’s the secret? Quite simple, really. Cletus’ titular tactics are a way of applying tactical logic to a broader strategic goal. It’s pulled from Scaramouche’s game-breaking fencing strategy–engage your enemy in a series of conflicts, not with the aim of scoring a kill on any of these, but simply to focus his mind on those engagements while simultaneously drawing him further and further out of his defenses–until you have prepared the strike. Yeah, it takes a damn’ good fencer and a damn good general. You have one guess as to what Cletus is. (Hint: he’s the protagonist.)

The overwhelming question I am left with is: why? Why Cletus? Why Dow deCastries? What the heck is the Alliance or the Coalition? Or Earth? Why are the Neumann colonists attacking, anyway, that the Exotics need to hire mercenaries? I don’t think I’m being unfair to point out that the worldbuilding isn’t all that great. So that’s a small mark against it. Mind you, most people aren’t reading the book for details on imaginary history or clever linguistics. They’re in it for the Mil-SF action, and this is one of the classics for a reason.

I may have mentioned this in the Necromancer review, but Gordon R. Dickson is one of my own personal Big Three SF authors. I read his stuff extensively and absorbed a lot of his characteristic tropes. The loner hero–who is not alone because of some personality quirk, but because he holds an identity or point of view entirely separate from the rest of humanity. The Leader who can impose his will on others because he combines the intelligence and erudition of a scholar, a warrior’s martial prowess, a poet’s eye, and a psychologist’s ability to understand and exploit of human nature. The Danger: Human attitude–that there is nothing in the cosmos so great as a human, and no force on Earth or among the stars that can can stop a Man who has accepted its challenge.

All of these are showcased in this book, and it’s a damn good book.

(Now I kinda want to read the crossover fanfic, terrible as it inevitably will be, of Cletus Grahame and Lelouch vi Britannia playing chess together. Or perhaps rock-paper-scissors (jumptrooper-mecha-dropship? Ohhhh boy, I wonder what havoc Miles Vorkosigan could wreak if he went up against Cletus. Or worse…if they joined forces….)

Other notes:

– Cletus spends considerable time of this book passed out.

– Cletus is kind of a smug bastard, isn’t he?

Rated: Soldier, ask not. Especially for more jump troopers.

QuikReview – Top Gun: Maverick

So. I had absolutely nothing better to do with myself this afternoon, so I went and watched Top Gun: Maverick. I’ve never watched the original Top Gun (though it’s stunted baby cousin, Navy SEALS, was, well, it wasn’t good either but I had a crush on Michael Biehn.)

Anyhow, this movie: it took precisely ten seconds for me to start grinning, and I never really stopped. This is a movie that knows precisely, exactly, who it’s audience is, and exactly, precisely what they want. (besides stuff going vroommm vrmmm whooosh sssssshwooooo pchwa!, or, “he’s on my tail he’s on my tail! Aaaaahhhhh!!!” and, “Bravo dagger turn flight alpha heading and take altitude 505!” and, “Copy that Blue Leader!”) And it gives it to them right and proper, and…

….and that’s all it takes, really.

The audience wants to see their heroes win. Yes, heroes have to lose a bit, but. They have to win after they lose, and the audience knows this. Mess with this formula for no good reason and you end up with a disaster on your hands. The audience wants to see their heroes fight, struggle a bit, come back up, and win. They want to see their rivals give them a grudging but heart-felt nod of acknowledgement. They want to see them blazing into the sunset with the girl.

Does this movie have flaws? Sure, but off the top of my head the only one that bothered me was actually turned into an asset. The ever-more-compressed timeline keeps the pace such that when the climactic plot events turn from “dramatic” to “highly improbable,” to “okay, seriously, what?”, we’re still invested, still carried along, still wanting to see our heroes survive and win, and slightly too busy watching them do this to ask questions.

I’ll also give full kudos to the film for having the basic intelligence to answer the question that the audience members (me) was asking, namely, “Why don’t you bomb the hell out of the airbase before the fighters start the Death Star trench run?” (They do. End of story.)

Respect + intelligence = success.

Man, if only the rest of Hollywood could get it….

Rated: VRMMM VRMMM SHHHHHVOOOOOOOSHHHH thudathudathuda BOOOM