The Shadow Always Knows readlist

e6609d6c80ab74e5671a297a4c357b70-800 I’m still reading The Shadow pulp novels by Maxwell Grant (i.e., Walter B. Gibson). In fact, I just finished #35, The Silver Scourge, sometime last night. Tip about formatting .pdf files for Kindle–if they are simple .pdfs without illustrations or odd formatting, use Calibre or your program of choice to convert them to .txt. Kindles can handle .txt and the OCR seems to work quite well. 

Anyhow, in the absence of taking detailed notes, these books blend together. They’re fast-moving, simple, lightweight,  fairly standardized at this point, and thoroughly enjoyable. The casts in the initial books, as Gibson worked out his formula, were a little bit more varied–sometimes he would have guest stars dip in to serve as narrator–but he seems to mostly abandon this once he has the core crew of Burbank, Rutledge Mann, Clyde Burke, and Cliff Marsden. And (sigh) Harry Vincent. There’s also the dogged but marginally competent Inspector Cardona, his sidekicks Detective Klein and Sergeant Markham; there’s the bulldogged and marginally less competent Police Commissioner (Weston? Watson? Something like that.) Gibson did experiment with a couple of female characters, but without exception they have been extremely minor and (in the case of Cliff Marsland’s actual wife) quickly forgotten. Apparently, this didn’t actually hurt The Shadow Magazine’s sales with female readers, which may have reached about 30% of total audience. Impressive, and also: DUH, women read books for the hot guys, too.

There are a few set locations: the office door of B. Jonas (where chubby-faced Rutledge Mann, the intel guy, drops off envelops of newspaper clippings and notes written in vanishing bright blue ink). There’s The Shadow’s sanctum, which has gotten slightly filled out beyond the black void room it was originally. Lamont Cranston’s New Jersey mansion has also gone on display a few times. 

Of the cast, Burbank is the “quiet voiced” Mission Control who alone has the ability to directly contact The Shadow. Burbank is rather interestingly similar to his employer in that he has a remarkable, single-minded dedication to his job–sometimes staying on duty for days at a stretch–something which the author notes is going to be in some ways harder for a man who is literally locked inside a dark room, than for the men out in the field. Clyde Burke is a newspaper tabloid reporter who, fittingly, is introduced in one of the more over-the-top stories (The Death Tower), featuring a mad scientist and the threat of vivisection plus slow brain removal without anesthesia. Which, frankly, nobody these days would quibble about but….nevertheless The Shadow rescues him and (sigh) Harry Vincent anyway.

Slightly less incompetent purely because he’s supposed to have a reputation in gangland as a tough customer and a gat for hire, is square-jawed Cliff Marsland. Marsland served in France in WW1 (and possibly met The Shadow there, not that he knows it), and has done a stint in Sing Sing for another man’s crime (the wastrel brother of the girl he supposedly marries at the end of the book.) No one ever connects the dots with Cliff Marsland turning up for jobs and everyone he works with turning up dead, because, well, they all end up dead. 

And then there’s (sigh) Harry Vincent. Harry Vincent has a special place in the mythos, as he’s the most common point of view character and first agent we see The Shadow recruit: he’s pulled back from the brink of suicide and given a chance at life–life with honor, danger, adventure, courage, and also money. Thing is, this dude is so utterly useless it’s both laughable and infuriating. Yes, The Shadow’s agents are far less skilled, intelligent, capable, and cool than he is. But frankly, having Harry Vincent tail someone means that Harry Vincent is going to be spotted and whacked with a blackjack. Having Harry Vincent guard someone? That someone is as good as dead. Having Harry Vincent attempt to contact or pump someone for information? Generally means that Harry Vincent is going to get blackjacked, again, because DUDE. And, granted, the author isn’t on his side and is deliberately making him look less cool. But still. Sigh.

And then there’s the master of darkness who does ceaseless and fearless battle with the forces of evil: The Shadow himself. One of the cleverest parts of the pulps is that The Shadow genuinely is a mystery to the readers. He is not his main social identity, Lamont Cranston. Neither is he Henry Arnaud. His face is anything he wishes it to be–in early books it’s hinted he may be disfigured to the point of having no face. This is somewhat reinforced by future descriptions’ emphasis on the weirdly “masklike” and immobile cast of his features, and a scene of him donning a full-face prosthetic disguise. Small snippets of his backstory have trickled out–he served in Europe in World War One and knew Cliff Marsden; he was once a stowaway on board a German zeppelin with orders to destroy it (the zeppelin’s former captain gasps in horror at finding his ultra-secret craft was compromised); and his girasol ring was given him personally by one of the Romanoffs (but somehow also has a secret Chinese inscription underneath the gem, shrug.) He speaks multiple languages. He knows “jujutsu.”

The other part of what makes The Shadow is that he’s never less knowledgeable than the audience (although much more so than his agents.) He knows just about as much as the audience does, generally, because he’s secretly in the room when the crooks discuss things, or has Burbank listening in on a wire, or (sigh) Harry Vincent in the next diner booth over, eavesdropping. Admittedly, it sometimes does take some sort of logical contortion for him to deduce information that couldn’t otherwise have obtained–but the audience is more likely to forgive characters suddenly figuring things out which they, the readers, have known all along and which allows said characters to reach Point X in time for the climactic fight. So: good trick to make use of in, authors take note. 

The novels are fairly dramatic, but not entirely devoid of humor:

There’s a bit where The Shadow deduces that the crooks of the novel are going to need to kidnap some easy money to bankroll their fiendish experiments….which leads to Lamont Cranston throwing a lavish party and virtually waving fistfuls of money at the contact man while talking loudly about how rich and careless he is with his money and the control thereof, which, haha, is okay after all because he’s soooo rich. While standing in front of a conspicuous, open, man-sized crate. PST DID I MENTION I’M RICH?

And, there’s a bit where The Shadow has to dive into his car and make an ultra-quick change from “unkempt dockside bum” to “I own this car, officer, what seems to be the trouble?” The narrative notes that he was wearing the “immaculate” evening wear underneath the overalls (uh-huh, sure), and he’s in the process of kicking off the pants when the bobby comes over to investigate. The sequence is doubtless informed by Gibson’s background as a stage illusionist, but I still had to giggle when the pop-up top hat came on.

Anyhow, I’m out of time.

Rated: look, I’m in the process of converting books 37-57 to txt for my Kindle, what do you think?

The Shadow Knows Readlist

So I’ve been working my way through The Shadow pulp novels (#s16-25 on this batch) all by Maxwell Grant AKA Walter B. Gibson. I’m not 100% sure what triggered this binge, because the last time I tried (back in 2017), I bounced off hard.

As far as each individual story goes, there’s not much to review. Crimes are committed; viewpoint narrator–sometimes one of The Shadow’s agents, such as (sigh) Harry Vincent the eternally distressed dude, sometimes the dogged detective Joe Cardona, sometimes just a random passer-by who gets involved–investigates or gets dragged along in the excitement. There are very few female characters: these are boy books, adventures and gunfights only! Sometimes it’s the criminals who spot a vague shape on the floor that drifts away when they look closer, sometimes it’s the narrator; but there’s always a weird onlooker who is never himself seen, often emitting a weird whispered laugh at moments when laughter is definitely not called for. The Shadow’s agents / POV characters tend to do the legwork of the story, while The Shadow does the heavy detecting, daring rescues, and both guns-blazing attacks in the teeth of gangdom/crime cults/etc. There is often a mastermind or a behind-the-scenes higher level boss to the street-level crimes, but he as well as his minions receive their comeuppance either at the hands of the police, The Shadow, or, in their terror and guilt, themselves.

They’re top-notch pulp fiction: easy come, easy go. I couldn’t really tell you any of the details of any of the past ones.  There was one about, uh, a pseudo-oriental crime cult, and there were a bunch of inheritance murders, and then there was one with this mad inventor (who was being manipulated by his financial backer guys) who had this automatic threatening letter mailing device thingy, and then there was the one last night, which had another oriental crime cult and opium smuggling. The current one is causing me immense amusement inasmuch as it’s about breaking up a ring of extortionist psychic mediums…and The Shadow keeps breaking up seances by showing up and cackling, which scares everyone including the phony psychics.

Needless to say, The Shadow is handled in a way that preserves the mystique of the character, shows how powerful and dangerous he is, and maintains his cool bravura. There is never more than a glimpse of The Shadow: usually, all that the “narrator” sees of him is his outline–tall, thin, in a black cloak and slouch hat–or his hands and girasol ring when he’s working at his desk. Even when he is injured, tired, or wounded–which is rare, since his usual role is to swoop in when his agents are in danger–there is never a sense of vulnerability to this guy. In fact, on the rare occasions when we do get close in to The Shadow, he just gets creepier. So far, too, it doesn’t even seem like the author is cheating to make him enter and escape the situations he does, either. It makes perfect sense that The Shadow can slip in and out of an ambush by every gat wielder in town when he’s just barely been forewarned of their presence by his own habit of being stealthy, creepy, and cautious. Or that he’s got his own man in place ahead of time to cover his escape. Or that he’s able to take advantage of confusion and panic and plunge through the midst of the gangsters, dual automatics blazing.

One of my problems back in the day was that the action was terribly, terribly written. A dozen-plus books in, it’s definitely better, which is to say, there’s comparatively more of it and it’s less clunky. This is not to say that it’s great. But it’s at this point readable.

Some of the descriptions are bang-on bone chilling. And there are of course some standout scenes–the wicked creepy part in an early book where Lamont Cranston, playboy millionaire, returns home unexpectedly, wakes to find a man with his own face in his own room, and is in no uncertain terms told that he can leave town again or be denounced as an imposter by the real Lamont Cranston.

And then there’s the part where the Burmese crime cult is going to imprison the drugged damsel of the novel in the sacred silver casket, for ever hail Kali amen!….only to find that The Shadow has snuck in and is waiting inside it instead, presumably solely for the sake of scaring the hell out of everybody with the dramatic reveal. (To make things even better, once that reveal is over, he takes a seat on the high priest’s ornate throne while menacing everybody with his dual automatics and, of course, laughs.)

But….well…whenever The Shadow is “gliding soundlessly” or “flitting eerily” down a hallway or across a room I keep imagining him walking on tip-toes and that just kind of ruins it all.


Readlist – The Durdane Duology and more

– The Durdane Trilogy (The Faceless Man, The Brave Free Men, The Asutra) – Jack Vance. This is a trilogy that really, really should have ended with the second book. Or at least, had a hard-handed editor crack down on Vance, who allowed his cynicism and (apparent) dislike of the main character invalidate that hero’s entire arc, work, and struggles.

Books 1 and 2 set up a subtle parallel between the main hero, Gastel Etzwane, and the two most prominent supporting leads: the mysterious and neutral Ifness, and the fraught Jerd Finnerack. When Etzwane is a young boy, fleeing from mortal danger, he encounters Ifness–who (bound by a strict policy of neutrality!) refuses to help. Later, when Etzwane encounters Ifness again as an adult, Ifness–ostensibly for reasons of sheer pragmatism but, potentially, also as a subconscious or semi-conscious atonement–makes Etzwane his accomplice and sets the reins of power in his hands, before exiting stage left in the fashion of mysterious mentors.

Meanwhile, when Etzwane was also a boy, he did a great harm to Jerd Finnerack, who was attempting to help him; and when he is able to, recruits Finnerack as his assistant…and sets the reins of power in his hands.

Etzwane is not particularly bitter against the man who harmed him, or at least can control the desire to act on his dislike; Finnerack is, and might–or might not. The conflict between the two grows throughout book 2 as they both increase their abilities–Finnerack more so than Etzwane, and Finnerack with decreasing stability. It is one of the driving sources of tension in Book 2, as our heroes  clash even while they are attempting to unify the planet and destroy the barbarian hordes of invaders. –with heroic, protagonistic success, but not without incident–

And then, Ifness comes back and takes over (the neutrality policy has changed! Now his actions are, it is revealed, motivated by a desire to embarass and displace his superiors), and Gastel Etzwane’s time, efforts, sacrifice, struggles, worries, plans, and battles are completely forgotten or negated; Jerd Finnerack is destroyed as a character with an almost cruel abruptness. Several fairly important plot threads are completely abandoned in order to make this work. Worse still, this is all done together with a bait-and-switch moment that was aggravating just on the surface of it.

Still, Book 2 provides an overall satisfactory conclusion to the problems of the world Durdane and its leadership, and the journey of the boy Mur, aka Gastel Etzwane, the musician who became its leader.

The way Book 3 ends makes me assume Vance was forced to write another chapter just for the sake of it, disliked the obligation, and decided to deliberately make the readers suffer. Here’s how: he takes a bunch of standard SF tropes and our hero…and then (with malicious intent!) applies “Except Now Reality Happens” to what should be very simple tropes. Planetary barbarians capture spaceship to rescue their womenfolk!….ship is recaptured after a brief siege because the barbarians can’t make it go anywhere, up down or around, and all survivors (did we mention they started killing each other after a week or so, including the named characters that were specifically pointed out as knowing the odds and the risks of a rescue mission and went for it anyway because they loved their daughters) are enslaved along with the girls. Again, it’s not in the content–it’s in the execution; and it’s in the denouement, which is infuriating all on its own without adding the additional insult that it does have.

Will you look at that, turns out I did have something to say about this book. I think it sucked.

As far as the good stuff goes: Books 1 and 2 for the most part are standard and I did like them: they have characters, character arcs, development, motives, and a plot that allows the characters to be proactive and effective. Book 1 Etzwane is largely motivated by trying to redeem his mother’s slave-indenture, making his mother one of the more prominent female characters in the pulp scifi galaxy. And she’s a rather good character as well. Might have to make a “mothers in SF” post one of these days. And I will say that that’s an OK cover to book 3. If only it had a good book to cover. Damnit.

– The Blue World – Jack Vance – See, Vance did know how to write pulp-action scifi. He just had to layer it in elaborate worldbuilding and add sly layers of humorous backstory. I read this one as a palate cleanser. (Literally: I stayed awake another two hours to read it, just to get The Asutra out of my head.)

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik – This one has definitely entered the rotation as one of my go-to relax reads, and I’m glad to say it’s held up on each repeat.

– The Fifth Elephant – Terry Pratchett – “Vimes in Uberwald will be more amusing than an amorous armadillo in a bowling alley.”

Reblog: Happy Birthday to Leigh Brackett!


Cirsova observes that the Queen of Mars and hard-boiled Babe of Film Noir would have been 106 today and that there are plenty of ways to celebrate, whether by watching one of the many award-winning movies she scripted (HATARI! happens to indeed be an excellent choice, bravo Cirsova; but so is The Big Sleep, or Rio Bravo, or Rio Lobo, or Eldorado), or by reading one of the many memorable books she has written.

Stranger at Home is a possibility, if you want a combination hard-edged melodrama or romance-infused noir; or No Good From a Corpse if you just want straight-up, hard-boiled, smack-talking, straight-shooting, private-detective-starring noir.

Or perhaps, if you are in the mood for a glimpse of another future, where time has worn even the dust of aeons away from the shattered palaces and crumbling walls: there is Shadow Over Mars/The Nemesis From Terra.

Or if you want just plain space opera, the stories of dangerous, laughing women and grim, conquering men, evil geniuses and star traders and space-sickness and stowaways, try Starmen of Llyrdis.

Happy Birthday, Ms. Brackett. Thanks for the stories. You gave us a glimpse of the stars as they should be, not as they are.

Mistress Wilding – Rafael Sabatini (repost review)

Mistress Wilding by Rafael Sabatini, hardcover with dustjacket

There’s just something about swashing buckles that hits the spot. This is why Captain Blood, Sea Hawk, Scaramouche, The Three Musketeers, and their lesser children–like Pirates of the Carribbean–exist. Rafael Sabatini might not have been the first, but he is the best of the best. And with the best you get cunning heroes, ravishing heroines, billowing sails, cannonade, heaving bosoms, cutlasses, sabers, rapiers, flintlocks, the high seas, highwaymen, and those really nice lace cravats.

Unfortunately, Mistress Wilding isn’t one of the best. It isn’t even in the top ten.

Its cast is simple:
– Ruth Westmacott-slash-Wilding, who is wonderful, gentle, rich, beautiful, and rich, and also beautiful, while furthermore beautiful and slightly spineless.
– Richard Westmacott: who is worthless.
– Rowland Blake: who is also worthless, and after Ruth’s money.
– Ruth’s Cousin Diana: who is jealous of Rowland Blake, and the second most proactive character in the novel.
– Anthony Wilding: who is the hero.
– Nick Trenchard: who is the hero’s psycho sidekick, the most proactive character in the novel, and the guy who actually disposes of the villain while the hero is making out with his wife.
– Some other people.

Its plot is likewise simple:
– Richard’s life is in danger (due to him having insulted Wilding)! Ruth must appeal to Wilding to save him. Wilding saves Richard, at the price of Ruth and Wilding getting married.
– Part 2: Richard’s life is in danger (due to him trying to backstab Wilding)! Ruth must appeal to Wilding to save him. Wilding saves Richard, and then has to run for it.
– Part 3: Wilding joins the Duke of Monmouth, but the rebellion is doomed to failure. This part is quite boring. No heaving bosoms at all.
– Part 4: Wilding’s life is in danger (due to Richard being part of a plot against the Duke)! Ruth must save him! Woo, a plot twist! Then Wilding saves the Duke.
– Part 5: Ruth’s life is in danger; Wilding gallops madly after to save Ruth! Surely there will be bloodshed this time, our gallant hero will seize the villain who rode off with the lady over his saddlebow…wait, no fight? More talk?
– Richard betrays Wilding. Oh no, who could have seen that one coming?
Wilding is sentenced to be shot! But he’s given one minute to reconcile with Ruth! She luvs him! Woo, finally! And then he’s marched out to be shot, but, y’know.
…marched out to be stood up in front of a ditch. In the dark night. While wearing black. Um….
– Part 6: The Duke of Monmouth loses the war while Wilding is getting a shower and a nap. (Captain Blood is meanwhile gearing up for his adventures, I take it.)
Nick arrives to fetch Wilding so they can commence getting the hell out of Dodge. Wilding has a better idea! Involving…his boots?
– Part 7 : What the hell is Rowland still doing at the Westmacott house? He straight-up assault-kidnapped Ruth!? A dramatic entrance! Horay!
“Sir, had I a man at hand to make you regret that insult!”
“Madam, that man is here.”
So Wilding’s cunning plan was to take the secret letter in his boot to the King’s agent and thus become the King’s very own best friend. And to think that until now he’s been the only character to not betray or turn aside from his actual loyalty to the Duke. He and Ruth are reconciled and prepare to go home, but the matter of Rowland and his (repeated) insult to Ruth…
is conducted off-screen, by his sidekick.
Not only is there no battle, no duels, and no fights, there isn’t even a climactic fight to end the book?

All in all, this is one of Sabatini’s much lesser efforts. There is no (nil) on-screen action, tedious interludes, and the weakest (Ruth) or least likeable (Richard, Monmouth) characters are much in the fore. This isn’t to say that they’re all bad: I liked Diana, who at least knows what she wants and how to get it, and I liked Nick, who just keeps being thwarted in his efforts to do the smart thing and eliminate his buddy’s troubles at the source. But Wilding himself, while in some ways an exemplar of swashbuckler/pulp heroes in the charisma and charm department, lacks the brawn to back up his reputed brains; he’s too undisciplined in any area that involves Ruth, and frankly tends to slither in and out of situations without any real effort.

Ruth herself isn’t perhaps so much spineless as unable to act without outside prodding, usually from Diana, and just seems to have no real influence on anyone (other than Wilding) when she does. And, to cut her just a little more slack, this might not be a problem if she, say, tried and once, but when she’s dragged/pushed/rushes into a court of law for the third freaking time for pretty muchly the exact same reason as the first, it’s clearly a problem of the author and not the character.

Rated: Two heaving bosoms out of five. A decent romance, but a poor swashbuckler.