So, 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.