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.

Iron and Magic – Ilona Andrews – repost review

ironmagic-900TLDR: ….here’s the thing: books rate differently depending on what genre they are—and I can’t decide what genre this book is.

If it’s a romance, it’s a solid 5/5: it has a romance in the A-plot, but it also has an actual A-plot that doesn’t completely fall apart once the main pair start sleeping together.

If it’s a standard pseudo-medieval fantasy, it’s a 3/5: it has warlords who seem genuinely dangerous and leaders who lay plans and think ahead, act like leaders rather than 20th-century office workers.

If it’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy thriller, it’s a 2/5…because, damnit, that’s the setting, and therefore that’s the genre by default, right? But it kept slipping into stupid romance-novel cliches, or dumb fantasy cliches, or dumb Hollywood cliches, and insulting its own intelligence in the process.

Pros/Cons: My likes and problems with this book are the same as with the Kate Daniels series: it’s at its best when it focuses on the worldbuilding and characterization….and yet it resolutely doesn’t play to its strengths and eventually just gives up and coasts on a smooth lane of cliche.

Plot: Hugh d’Ambray, after failing once too many times at doing whatever he was supposed to do to Kate in the previous series (still not sure about that, and, it seems, so is Hugh), was placed on administrative leave by his ex-boss Roland (an evil demigod.) Hugh proceeds to get very drunk. Ex-boss has also decided to thin out those among his men who might be more personally loyal to Hugh than to him. These eventually get back with Hugh and demand he do something about it. So: Hugh has a small army, but no home base, no supplies, allies, or resources. Elara, leader of The Departed (no, they don’t explain it either), has a castle, farmlands, and four thousand people to protect….but somehow doesn’t have anyone to do the protecting. She and Hugh contract a marriage alliance. They also immediately fall in hate with each other (rather strangely, because there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for it….other than The Romance Plot Requires It), and spend the rest of the book bickering until they finally fall into bed.

Why does The Bailey of The Departed need protecting? Because Roland’s new warlord, Landon Nez, is expanding his territory throughout the Midwest, and small magical communities like Elara’s are his direct targets. So Hugh must fortify Bailey (his battle for use of the bulldozers is one of the most relatable…*wince*…parts) and prepare for the coming fight. Meanwhile, there’s also supernatural weirdos in strange armor systematically attacking and slaughtering the nearby settlements…who also happen to be anti-magic bigots who won’t accept the help of Them Thar Dad-gum Magical Folk, You Can’t Trust ‘Em None (Throw Some Rocks, That’ll Learn ‘Em To Stay Away.) I’m being entierly serious.

So, worldbuilding: I really liked these bits. Like, how do you dig a seventy-five by ten foot moat and make it waterfast? Well, bulldozers, and then line it with concrete. But where are you going to get the volcanic ash for the Roman concrete? And who’s paying for the fuel? And your precious moat is lower priority than our sewer system, and the concrete isn’t setting right so did you waste our money? And what, oh, you want generators now? You’re pulling people off the maintenance crew now? Where are we going to get the fuel for the generators and what if we need those men for the gardens? Yep. YYYYYUP. (I recounted this part to one of the maintenance leads at my first job. He wanted to know what the book was and why the author was mocking him.)

But then for the main conflict they use the laziest device ever: the keystone army that dissolves when you kill the queen. The authors needed a Danger to provide exciting action sequences, but needed it not to be too difficult, since the heroes have limited options and resources. Instead of spending some brainpower to come up with a suitable threat–say, roving band of warlocks from Canada; or a nearby settlement that decides Bailey is now a threat and wants to cripple them preemptively; or The Pack, or the IRS, or something–we get mind-controlled Neanderthals, from nowhere, without context, any kind of buildup or backstory, nothing. BORING. BOOOOOORING. Oh, and can you guess that once you take down the queen the rest of the threat stops in its tracks? SUUUUUPER BORING. Ugh.

Characters: I have better things to say about the characters. All two and a half of them.

Hugh has to play a double role of warlord and romantic hero; but here’s the thing. A warlord isn’t going to be a hard bastard all the time; he has to have charisma, he has to demonstrate intelligence, and he has to be able to sweet-talk or reassure the people he can’t intimidate. I’d actually say that they hit the mark with this: Hugh’s code-switching is done perfectly, and you get a man whom men will trust immediately. Also dogs and kids. (Although the little girl was a bit of an overkill). And, given his powerset–he’s an immensely strong healer, as well as a master swordsman–he’s fun to watch in a fight…theoretically. There aren’t really as many good fight scenes as there ought to be. (Post apocalypse? Fights. Thriller? Fights. Romance novel? No fights.) As far as his character arc, it’s nothing new; we know he’s going to snap out of his drunken funk just as surely as we know he’s going to shape up into the man our heroine can sleep with; and we know he’s going to protect the Bailey and not back down. This isn’t a problem. Tropes are tools, and as long as they are used right–as they are here–it’s satisfying to read.

Elara Harper is also a pretty good heroine: a thoughtful, cunning leader who values life despite the rumor that her people engage in human sacrifice and that she’s the host of some kind of eldritch abomination from the elder days that not even Roland wants to cross…and even with this, she’s hampered by, again, the romance-genre tropes. Instant dislike to her new husband? Check. (I even re-read the scene again. There really is no reason for them both to start breaking out the insults while in the middle of negotiating for their people’s lives). “Fiery” personality that engages in charged bickering with her significant other? Check. Goes to extra lengths to keep him off because she’s really attracted? Check. Actually very soft-hearted and caring underneath? Check. Is any of this a problem? No; tropes are tools. These are just a little more obvious than they should be, and I noticed them a little easier.

Minor characters, such as boisterous, blunt berserker-bro Bale (I wonder if that is exactly what the author’s notes say about him) and the deaf-mute advisor girl who communicates in sign language (because she’s a banshee), remain minor but shouldn’t have. This is where the romance-genre tropes work against the book, by focusing things too much on the main duo rather than letting others get time in the limelight.

Action: is OK. My current gold standard for action writing is Larry Correia’s stuff. Hugh being someone who can heal himself or even his opponent as he fights is something that might come in handy for writing a really brutal fight scene….yeah, no. Well, again; if we call this a romance novel and not a post-apocalyptic thriller, then this isn’t a problem. (WHAT GENRE IS THIS BOOK?! It’s so good when it’s not a romance!)

The other problem is the use of that the really stupid Hollywood cliche “only the hero can do anything heroic on-camera.” It’s a cliche that shouldn’t be here, just by the book’s own logic.–there’s quite a bit of setup of how Hugh’s Iron Dogs work, are disciplined and competent…and should be able to do things like send out patrols and investigate suspicious happenings and report back to their boss, who is having dinner with some bigwigs and should have no reason whatsoever to be wandering around outside, getting in a fight with random monster scouts.

I will favorably mention one scene I thought particularly good: it’s simple, no frills, no magic, nothing fancy…just a child, a monster, a woman, and a shotgun, in a room.

Humor: is used deftly. “You’re handsome, a big, imposing figure of a man, and um…” Lamar scrounged for some words. “And they’re desperate.” Even the slap-slap-kiss romantic bickering is more amusing than annoying. Oh, and the post-apocalyptic wedding having an official DJ, photographer, and videographer? Pretty good. Preparing to host a self-proclaimed Viking with “one of those big barrels filled with beer, trust me, it works every time?” Hilarious. Like I said, the worldbuilding is one of the strengths of this book, and that includes throwing in funny, as well as verisimilitudinous, details whenever you can. If only the authors had done it more.

In conclusion: I liked this book enough to read it in one sitting, write 1500-odd words about it, and, four years later, have not read the next one and never will unless someone pays me.

Rated: What genre is it?! Really!

Review: Dracula – Bram Stoker

9780141439846So, there are several things that jump out about reading the OG Dracula novel.

One is that it would be really, really cool to see a movie adaptation of this book that is actually an adaptation of this book. It’s somewhat famously been stated that most adaptations are of the stage play, and now most are just straight-up based on previous movie adaptations, what’s a stage play?

Jonathan, Seward, and especially Mina are the main narrators of this novel, and they’re quite interesting protagonists in their own right: Jonathan is intelligent but naive, and develops into a man of absolute will and iron nerve, fired by the need to protect his beloved wife and avenge his own hurts. Seward is cool and analytical, but not nearly as much as he wants to be or thinks he is, and struggles with things outside of the settled science that he understands. And Mina is very much the unsung heroine who glues the plot together…and provides much-needed brainpower at times.

It would also be cool for said faithful adaptation to focus on the horror of vampirism, rather than the OMG DID YOU KNOW VAMPIRISM IS A CODE FOR THE SEX? TEE HEE angle that every. single. movie. and the thrice-damned urban fantasy genre in general ever has gone in necks-deep for. Yes, there is a definite aspect of addictive pleasure to vampirism: Jonathan has a moment of temptation with the Brides, Lucy has a personality shift post-death. But it’s played for more of the addiction angle: it’s something that subjugates the real personality to another’s thoughts and will, something that enthralls rather than bewitches, something that’s not titillating at all when its soulless eyes are leering into yours and offering you a fix. The Count’s predation on Lucy slowly destroys her physically, kills her mother, turns her into a monster that preys on children, and forces her to tempt the man she loves into a similar fate, even though she’s absolutely horrified by this in her lucid moments. The Count is not portrayed as a mysterious, tormented lover: he’s a stalkery thug who picks random women who catch his eye and physically injures them just because he can and wants to.

Being a vampire is nothing desirable. It’s terrifying to the victim, who can feel their will being overridden and the pain of their body being physically attacked and weakened, drained of blood. It’s horrifying from the outside, to the people who may not even know why their friend or child–or lover–is in such pain. And then it’s horrifying because now the person you loved is going to do the same thing to someone else, and is going to laugh about it.

Back to that hypothetical very cool movie adaptation: there’s a lot of scary, atmospheric, horror-type scenes, too, that never make it into the movies. The apocalyptic voyage of the Demeter, with crew disappearing one by one and the captain finally lashing himself to the wheel for the final trip through shoal and storm could be it’s own movie all by itself (has there been?) Then, there’s the Count’s final attack on Lucy–beginning with a howling wild wolf smashing through the window while she is too weak to call for help, her mother dying in her arms, leaving her trapped in the same bed as the corpse. Or the invasion of Carfax Abbey, when the hunters are suddenly swarmed by a horde of rats (to be rescued by a reserve team of terriers….) Those scenes are scary! And cool! They deserve to be seen on film!

[Complete sidenote: there is a very low-budgeted indie horror-Western movie called Shroud….which, well, we’ll discuss it some  other time, but it’s almost worth watching the negative-budget stunt fights for the twist at the end. The twist at the end makes you just want to pat this movie on the head and tell it nice things because, awwww, it has ambitions, lookat d’cute li’l dumb thing.]

There’s also some pretty darned thrilling action scenes that I don’t think have ever been adapted, either: the hunters confronting the Count in his London lair–Jonathan lunging at him with a kukri and then following him through a broken window–or even or Quincy Morris shooting at an eavesdropping bat. There’s the tension of the race to Europe after the Czarina Catherine and then, afterwards, tracing the Count’s river journey back towards his castle.

In fact, most of what I consider the strongest part of the novel–the point-by-point investigative work, tracing the Count to Carfax Abbey and then back again outwards from it, finding where he’s hidden his other spare coffins and systematically destroying them–just seems to get completely left out. Which leads to my second point:

The second point about this book is that there is a really taut, thrilling, action horror pulp novel in there. Problem is, it’s covered up with generous. nay, heaping dollops of melodrama that really don’t play as well to the modern eye as perhaps it did to the pre-modern. There’s a lot of weeping, hugging, emotionally swearing brotherhood, eternal trust, holy vengeance, more weeping, eternal brotherhood, emotional hugging, weeping, promising of trust….et cetera. The problem isn’t that any of this stuff is there, because some of it is a vital part of character progression and development. The problem is that there’s oodles too much of it and it gets in the way of the interesting stuff that happens.

There’s also the fact that roughly half of the characters aren’t really paying attention to what’s going on in the rest of the book, and as such, are prone to making the stupid and repeated mistakes of deliberately excluding Mina from the war council after Mina has provided crucial intelligence for the cause, ignoring Mina when she’s obviously suddenly anemic, ignoring random bats outside the war-council-room window, ignoring your canary in the coal mine when he warns you that Mina is in danger RIGHT NOW, and then, after finding out that (GASP) Mina has been preyed upon and vampirized by the Count….then and only then deciding that you are going to trust her utterly and include her in all councils hereafter. (Mina herself has to be the one to tell them not to do this.) Van Helsing has the paper-thin excuse that he thinks Mina might be pregnant and needs to stay out of it, but Seward knows how vital, useful, and well-informed Mina is, and Jonathan has zero excuses to make.

So, this book is a deeply uneven read. When I first read (listened via librivox, which is a great resource if you didn’t know about it) this book, I loved it for what was actually quite a small portion of the book: the investigation parts, where Jonathan, and Arthur Holmwood are at their very best, tracing the Count’s movements and and lairs (with some baksheesh), and then using social engineering to outright freaking burglarize a vampire’s legally-purchased house and destroy his earth box coffin lairs in broad daylight plain sight. I also loved the three-part chase: the Count fleeing by boat up-river, and the hunter’s company trailing him by river, horseback, and by carriage, each group armed with rifles of the same caliber so the ammunition is interchangeable, and the horseback group including a saddle with a removable horn that can be adapted for Mina. I mean, logistics! What more can you ask for?

But these verisimiltudinous touches keep getting interrupted, and worse, spread out by the aforementioned oozing emotional melodrama, taking up way too much page time, telling and not showing, removing the focus from the laconically thrilling medical mystery-slash-detective vampire hunter story, and padding the wordcount (probably.) Oh, and speaking of verisimilitude, the epistolary format allows for the inclusion (via Mina collecting and pasting them into her journal, dont’cha know) random POV snippets such as the random reporter who interviews the zookeeper about a missing wolf, or the invoice receipts from shipping companies. It’s all about logistics, I’m telling you. 

Well, logistics….and ignoring Mina. However! I have an elegant and simple solution for this particular problem, and it is thus: have Mina not be there. When the action moves to Carfax and the asylum, have Mina remain in London–and move into Lucy’s former home, to help administrate the estate while the trustee (Arthur Holmwood) is out of town. Thus, Mina is living in the house that the Count has the ability to enter; it keeps her at a remove from the men who should recognize instantly that anemia, pallor, and lethargy  = vampire; and it could allow the timeline to be tightened up a bit.

Honestly, though, my only other main criticism is that the main characters’ voices are all fairly similar, with Jonathan’s being the most distinct only inasmuch that he tends to downplay his emotions (while Seward denies that he’s actually wallowing in them…whilst in the midst of wallowing in them, and Mina just straight-up either cries or makes everyone else in the room cry.)

All that being said, this is a good book and it’s a shame no one ever made a movie of it.

Rated: I stand with him. To close you out.

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The Shadow # 35 – The Black Hush

shadow_magazine_vol_1_35So 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.

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 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 Magazine #7 – The Silent Seven

shadow_magazine_vol_1_7So, on The Shadow’s seventh outing (published in February of 1932), he confronts and finishes an enemy organization actually revealed in the previous book, The Death Tower.

In The Death Tower, we learn that there is an organization known as the Faithful Fifty, that they are in many places and many positions throughout New York City–one is revealed to be a police detective, who, in the presence of certain symbols or signs, covers up evidence and releases suspects–and that they serve the Silent Seven. Very little more is revealed about them, as The Death Tower deals more with the singular evil of Doctor Palermo and his wicked scheme, whatever it was, something to do with jewels, I think?  He was also kind of a weeb.

Walter Gibson expanded on the idea in this, the following book–although this is not immediately apparent. Aside from the title, I guess.

Anyhow, the story opens with an elderly man returning to his New York home when his servants report of burglary attempts–on one occasion hearing, on the other, actually seeing, an intruder. Nothing seems to be missing, but yet the man (Henry Marchand) seems to be in mortal dread as he returns, a fear that does not lessen as enters his study to check the safety of some secret that is known only to him.

Henry Marchand does not leave that room alive; and while his death by poison needle in the catch of the secret desk drawer is promptly attributed to misadventure (by Inspector Klein, Joe Cardona still being a mere detective and his hunches not having gained their due fame). Marchand’s friend and confidante Dr. Lukens is however convinced that the mysterious scrawled code revealed in that desk drawer has a meaning and a connection. Cardona agrees, but with the cause of death already established, can do little more than have the code analyzed. Meanwhile, Lukens looks after the disposition of his former friend’s estate, helped by his secretary, annoyed by one Rodney Paget, a lounging young clubman who seems to turn up because he has nothing better to do, but then who should surely have better manners than to snoop as obviously as he does; and then startled by the entrance of The Shadow.

The Shadow has deduced that Marchand was murdered, and the death cleverly framed to deflect blame on the absent-minded victim. Further, Marchand was killed for whatever he had hidden in the desk–and the code is not it. In fact, the code is a complete fake, intended to defer suspicion when investigators find an empty drawer. Who the murderer is, The Shadow does not yet know; but he expects Lukens’ help in finding justice. Lukens agrees–with the caveat that he also immediately attempts to sic the police on this eerie visitor–but, before he, or The Shadow can make further discoveries, is abruptly murdered.

Everyone (including The Shadow, who in the obligatory tussle with the flatfoots loses his guns in order that they can be ballistic-tested against the bullet that killed Lukens) has an alibi for this killing, and even the irritating man-about-town Rodney Paget seems to be in the clear, when:

RODNEY PAGET finished breakfast in his usual leisurely fashion. He took a bath and dressed. It was afternoon when he prepared to leave the apartment. Burnham was still sleeping.
Paget handed Kama a ten-dollar bill before he left.
“What time did the clock say when I came in?” he asked.
“Clockee strike halfee past eight,” came the parrotlike reply.
Paget rode along Eighty-first Street in a taxicab. He gazed curiously from the window as he passed the brownstone house where Doctor Lukens had died. He noticed a policeman standing by the front steps.
A faint smile appeared upon Paget’s lips.
Reaching in the watch pocket of his trousers, the clubman drew forth an object and held it in his half-closed hand. It was the scarab ring which Doctor Lukens had worn the night before—the ring which had once belonged to Henry Marchand.
Still smiling, Paget replaced the ring in his pocket. Calmly and leisurely, he opened his cigarette case and removed a cigarette. He put it carefully in the long holder.
Rodney Paget was puffing slowly and contentedly when the cab stopped in front of the Merrimac Club.

A huge part of why any hero is successful is because he has a good villain to play off against; and Paget is the sort of villain who would make a decent hero. He’s intelligent, cool under pressure, cultured and genteel; and he’s an underdog who is playing the game against the big boys, as a newcomer, with missing cards–but who still plays to win. (He doesn’t win.) (But still.)

Another part of why the villainy in this story hits home is because it’s a…surprisingly realistic, shall we say, depiction of a powerful secret society of criminals. It’s not super over the top: there’s fifty-seven people in this conspiracy, rather than hundreds, because….how do you stay secret with hundreds of followers? They’re present enough to be threatening, and they have enough gadgets, secret passages, signs and countersigns, to be all spooky secret society–but none of these run into the “gigantic labyrinth underneath Chinatown that somehow no one knows about even though it’s a tremendous fire hazard,” or, “I thought this place was abandoned, why does it have a massive electric bill?” trap. When they think someone’s spying on one of their assets, they lay a trap for him with a four- or five-man team, not an endless wave of fanatic mooks. The final battle doesn’t include withering fire from massed machine guns, but it’s well-aimed enough that if you step out of cover you get shot. The Seven, revealed, are an equal mix of politicians, gangsters, bankers, and (hah) academics. Their aim is power and money, rather than world domination. They rob banks and blackmail millionaires. Simple, and effective.

But back to Paget: having a demonstrably cool, collected character as an antagonist and showing them at their best–dealing with cops, mooks, and the other villains–is a great way to build up your hero by then turning the page and showing how utterly he freaks people out when they know he’s after them.

“I had a dream that same night—a dream that something was threatening me. I woke up and thought some one was in the room. But I could find no one there. The next night I dreamed again. When I awoke and looked toward the window I could see nothing. It seemed as though some great, black shape was looming in front of me. Then it disappeared and was gone.
“Since then every shadow has worried me -”
Paget’s voice stopped. He stared at the window of the room as though expecting to see some monstrous shape sweep aside the shade.
“If my enemy is real,” said Paget in a tense, hoarse whisper, “I can meet him. But when I have never even seen him -“

As mentioned, the earliest Shadow novels lean into a stage magician-like blend of invisibility (The Shadow either uses very simple disguises and an aura of authority to blend in, or he’s a full-on weird shapeless blot of darkness in the night, etc) that sometimes hits the actually uncanny. One of the inspirations of the character was–believe it or not, Dracula–and there’s a bit near the end of this story that seems to nod to Old Red Eyes’ powers. The Shadow himself plays this up with his dialogue when he speaks to Lukens–or, to the revealed First of the Silent Seven. Interestingly, though, he’s less formal on the phone with Burbank–either because Gibson hadn’t quite developed the communications style (“Report!”), or because he tends to trust and rely more heavily on Burbank than his other agents.

Because much of the novel is told from Pagets’ POV, there’s less of The Shadow’s agents; but (sigh) Harry Vincent and Clyde Burke appear and….are frankly almost totally useless. I mean, it’s not as if either of them had any formal training for this job and if you’re going to have trusted agents shouldn’t they also be highly skilled? Or at least assigned to jobs that they’re suited for, generally? I mean, Rutledge Mann stays in his office the majority of the time, clipping newspapers, and Burbank does his thing with gadgets; what was the idea with just recruiting two random guys off the street and having them tail mobsters–who are used to spotting and dealing with this kind of thing, fatally? Really when you think about it, The Shadow is just setting these guys up for failure.

Naturally the final chapter involves dragging Harry Vincent out of a death trap.

So, anyhow: is very a good, very solid early Shadow story, despite the accurate yet lackluster cover.

Rated: If Number Five is dead, you cannot be Number Five. If you are the man who took the ring from the thief, you must be–

DALL·E 2022-09-29 17.41.29

The Lord of Castle Black – Steven Brust – Repost Review

TLDR: Even if this one is pretty good, I have lost all patience with the Dragaera Cycle.

It’s difficult to read Steven Brust’s books at all now–even ones I previously loved liked found okay, like Issola and the very first Jhereg–because now I know the dirty secret. He’s not interested in his own story, his own universe, or making it all fit together. Dragaera isn’t a tightly-woven narrative tapestry, it’s a collection of very bright and colorful threads in a loose knot. Now and then Brust may tug a couple of threads taut, just to show off how shiny and pretty those strands are. But there’s no overall, well-thought out picture that can be salvaged from the tangle at this point (well, not without extreme and conscientious effort which I highly doubt will be made).

Brust’s interest in Dragaera lies in…I can’t say the characters, because he seems painfully uninterested in them, but he does like gourmet food, philosophical digressions (AKA, why socialism is good and mafia aren’t), and….I guess, Devera. And this is a problem, because klava and gourmand fried chocolate-dipped garlic and roast asafoedita-stuffed dormouse have left enough of a bad taste in my mouth that even after reading half of this book and enjoying it, I was extremely reluctant to pick it up again–and I still can’t bring myself to actually read The Baron of Magister Valley (AKA, The Count of Monte Cristo IN DRAGAERA.) Why should I read a book in a series that the author doesn’t even want to finish and doesn’t like any more? Why should I expect to be pleasantly entertained when that’s not the purpose of the story, anymore? Why read a well-written and enjoyable prequel to a series that the author doesn’t want to finish?

Brust does not want to tell stories about swashbuckling but hard-edged heroes, noble but ruthless warriors, sorcerers who are as powerful as gods, and gods who are as petty as men. He doesn’t want to tell a story of criminals or of empires, rebels or righteous war. He doesn’t really care about excitement any more, and adventures are downright distasteful. Much better to drink egg coffee in a corner cafe. His stories are the stories of an old man who shares little in common with his younger self (who at least tried), or with younger audiences (who came on board for the swashbuckling, capeswishing, rapier-flashing, epic fantasy stories written on a narrative backdrop that is a richly-woven tapestry, etc…AKA, people like me who stuck it out for fifteen books but have at this point noticed which way the wind blows.)

That said, and with it in mind, Brust is at his best when he’s riffing off a better author and doesn’t have to come up with those tedious narrative beats himself. As in Paths of the Dead, which I own but haven’t read in several years, this is one of those instances.

This subseries is a prequel to the main Vlad Taltos books, covering the fall and rise again of the Dragaeran Empire. It’s also a riff off of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers–D’Artagnan, Portos, Aramis, and, uh, whats-his-face, Oliver Reed played him in the movie…whatever–becoming Khaavren (the main hero), Tazendra (the dumb but loveable ruffian), Aramis (the sneaky Yendi), and…I dunno, the other guy. (WHAT IS HIS NAAAAME?!) So, I had it wrong, this is actually book 2 of a sub-trilogy within the Khaavren Romances subseries of the Dragaera Cycle. Eh, whatever.

The plot is: Khaavren, formerly the swashbuckling hero of a previous generation, has decided that he needs to get back in shape and take to the road again. His timing is good, because meanwhile, Zerika has re-emerged with the Orb from the Paths of the Dead–making her indisputably the new Empress. Problem is, there really is a dispute going on, because there are at least two pretenders to the throne, and they have quite a few more men than she does. (She’s got about twenty-five, including Khaavren’s son Piro). Meanwhile, young Dragonlord Morrolan has set up shop in a ruined castle and begun doing what he is assured Dragonlords do, which tax the local civilians and use the money to assemble an army. He’s got about three thousand soldiers. Meanwhile, immortal sorceress Sethra Lavode is…well, she’s in her mountain doing whatever she does that is of deep mystic import and is never actually explained to the audience. And, since this is book 2 of 3-ish, that’s about it. There’s a couple of battles but they don’t resolve the Pretendership conflict, and on the personal level, the book ends with a near-tragedy as Khaavren’s old-school values and personal prejudices end up pushing his son away into a life of banditry (whee!)

So the main attraction the Khaavren Romances have is that the writing style, as well as the plot, homages Dumas–that is, it’s wordy, literate, and full of narrative filligree and little stylistic flourishes which ironically help flesh out the world and the characters far, far better than plainer prose. It’s a bit stilted, but it’s charming, often amusing, (“Oh bother,” said Tazendra, “I’ve lost the reins.”) and sometimes actually quite witty. Actual action is treated in classic style: with many flourishes and little detail and as much posturing as is necessary to show our heroes in a heroic light.

The characters are less of an attraction, mostly because they’ve already been established and the narrative convention is to keep them on a bit flatter of an arc than we’d normally see. Mostly the only development is between Piro and his love interest Ibronka, culminating in a highly amusing scene wherein their friends basically lock them in a closet to resolve the UST. Morrolan, the second lead, amusingly gets slighted by the biased narrator, who regards him as an unsophisticated country (human-raised) bumpkin who wavers between dangerously airheaded and just plain dangerous. Needless to say, Morrolan’s actual actions put a lie to everything but the dangerous bit.

So, overall: this is a good book, and it’s part of a series that once showed great promise. Unfortunately, given that the rest of the series fails signally to live up to that….I honestly can’t enjoy it anymore.

Rated: One half-exploded sorceress out of…well…one.

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.