Via the estimable DBreitenbeck.
Via the estimable DBreitenbeck.
So, Silver Skull is the 165th The Shadow Magazine story, published January of 1939. Rather odd that the cover artist didn’t go with the scene where The Shadow confronts a ghastly talking silver skull in a gaseous death pit trap. The novel does, however, prominently figure The Shadow in all three of his most-used personalities: the leisurely and laconic Lamont Cranston, globe-trotting millionaire (who also invests heavily in the tech sector and flies planes); stoic and sober Kent Allard, the celebrated aviator; and The Shadow (who flies an autogiro and is heavily interested in crime.)
Planes, as you may infer, are heavily used in the fairly basic plot, which involves a set of rich men, who have recently made wealth transfers of some sort, and then embarked on long-distance flights which promptly crash. Man, you can talk smack about the FAA regulating our flying cars out of existence but maybe it has a point….
Anyhow, The Shadow investigates, both in his own identity as celebrated aviator, Kent Allard (who, we are reminded, survived a crash landing in the Guatemalan jungle and became the white god of a primitive tribe….a detail that frankly never grows old. Man, I love old pulps and their complete determination to make their protagonists awesome by whatever means necessary) and Lamont Cranston. Both have legitimate reasons for their interest; Allard in particular is appealed to by the niece of one such victim, Mildred Wilbin. Despite having the sense to call for help in investigating, and, of freaking course despite the protective overwatch of one Harry Vincent (Most Competent Agent of The Shadow, TM), Mildred promptly also gets kidnapped while playing amateur detective. We are introduced to our villain (Silver Skull), and to a couple of quite bright and therefore not-entirely loyal minions, the crooked Dr. Sleed and his squeeze / nurse, Thelma.
Sleed and Thelma actually give The Shadow a run for his money in this book more than anyone else, leaving him in a room filled with poison gas, or drugging him after he crawls, concussed and battered out of the aforementioned death trap pit–and, correctly assuming that they are slated to be disposed of by Silver Skull for knowing too much, arrange for him (in the guise of Lamont Cranston, who overplayed his hand) to take a one-way ride instead. Later on, of course, the tables turn and they–but, well, let’s not spoil it all completely here.
Burbank gets a great moment, albeit in his own low-key way, insisting the delirious Shadow give him his location and dispatching agents to get him to an actual doctor. Gibson gets the urgency of the situation across with remarkably few words; and shows how valuable an operative Burbank is by the simple, swift, and competent way he handles it. Take notes, Vincent.
But anyhow, there’s yet another beautiful, game, and gutsy damsel: Geraldine Murton, stewardess of the plane that supposedly crashed with Cranston aboard it. Geraldine is quite taken with Cranston and then also with Allard after meeting him, although she can’t really make her mind up who she prefers. It appears to be mutual, too, because The Shadow takes her along, suitably armed, on the search for Silver Skull’s western base.
So, I’ve gone on at length about the fact that pulp damsels in distress generally are solid characters in their own right who only lack the opportunity to get themselves out of distress and cut loose. This book is a perfect example. At one point, Mildred keeps a set of crooks covered–guarding The Shadow’s back as he takes on a horde of minions–and does so with, well, about as much success as Cliff Marsland would and definitely more than Harry Vincent. She does falter after actually shooting–killing–a man, but that’s only to be expected, and come the second time around, doesn’t so much as hesitate. Geraldine and her automatic provide a crucial aid to The Shadow in the climactic fight and wow what a perfect setup and payoff it was, too.
Anyhow, I really liked this one, and my only complaint is that it was maybe a chapter or two too short. I would have liked to see Miles Crofton, or even more of Burbank. (Also, this is the second time, after Quetzal, that The Shadow has survived a plane crash, not to mention that the real Lamont Cranston has also lived through one with minor injuries, per The Shadow Unmasks. Live adventurous lives, I suppose…) Although the pacing carries the plot nicely, it’s still a bit thin on the finer details and the reveal is rather obvious once we know that the crashed planes are actually being shot down by a fast fighter plane. Gibson is usually too good to let rather simple reveals stand by themselves without a further twist or elaboration, but the overall strength of the writing carries it through anyhow.
Also the aerial dogfighting. Did we mention that?
Rated: Dat last fade to black, tho, yooooo.
This book is Space Opera–as written by one of the Old Masters, first of the breed, foremost among those that led the way and titan to those that followed–at its finest. I mean, his nickname was “World Wrecker,” you can’t get better than that. There’s a different adventure every 1.5 chapters, a space princess, a scantily-clad space-concubine, grizzled space-captains, battleships, cruisers, phantoms, cunning or treacherous advisors, quarrelsome barons, and grim and gallant fighting men. There’s the lurking menace of the Clouded Worlds’ rebel fanatics and the legendary, unknowable, unutterably fearsome threat of The Disruptor that keeps even their cynical leader in line. There’s also, to make sense of it all, a present-day (1949) protagonist who has had his consciousness transferred into the body of a star-Prince–and thence suddenly into the teeth of the action itself. But what can a man of Earth–our Earth–do when the stars themselves are at stake?
Aaaaand that’s basically it. If you feel you need to somehow know more about this book, then you ought to read it.
It’s a book that reads incredibly quickly and hits every single pulp fiction trope that it possibly can without changing genres (and that even includes the crashed ship being attacked by hostile natives….if there had been space for even a single chapter more there would have been some sort of sword-against-sword action going on.) –but yet there’s a consummate level of skill involved that carries it all off.
Partly, it’s the prose, which sells the sensawunda that can only be achieved by an active imagination, a yearning for stars yet-unreached, deep knowledge of the past that informs the actual doings and behaviors of mankind; and a nimble pen that doesn’t flinch from a little bit of mauve from time to time (see: scantily-clad space concubine.) The other part is that Hamilton actually did know his business, and, preposterous though the plot is, makes it proceed logically from the actions of intelligent and motivated actors, one of which is often–but not always–our hero.
A third and crucial part is that our hero is a hero. Starting out from an ex-soldier with a yearning for more than his old accounting job will offer him, and thrust abruptly into the whirl of galactic politics and treachery, he accounts himself well, never forgetting that he owes a debt to the true Zarth Arn, whose face he wears and whose place he has taken. Also, another tribute to Hamilton’s prowess, although John Gordon is an outsider with only a cursory knowledge of the situation, never once does anyone to sit down and explain things to him (us) in simple language. While he’s no moron, he’s always scrambling to achieve an in-scene, in-person goal–to keep his cover, to bluff the enemy, to not break his morganatic wife’s heart–and he’s doing it with limited resources and high stakes.
The other characters suffer from the fact that this is a pulp novel at heart. They’re colorful, they’re placed to provide maximum interest, and they all give the impression that, given more time to navel-gaze, they could be turned into interesting persons indeed, rather than what is simply given them by their descriptors–space-princess, stalwart captain, sneaky advisor, cynical tyrant.
The one character who does do particularly well in this is, oddly enough, the cynical space-tyrant who leads the fanatics of the (?) Clouded Worlds. Shorr Kan is an odd duck of an antagonist, professing a fanatical hatred against the Empire that he in no ways feels; his own desire is for naked power alone. He’s cunning enough to seed the elitest ranks of the Empire with his own men, assassinate the Emperor and frame his own son for it, cold-blooded enough to use a brain scan device that, on uncovering neural connections, breaks them irreparably….and yet human enough to immediately switch the device off when it reveals that he’s got the wrong man. Mind you, he’s also dumb enough to let his suddenly-ultracooperative prisoner take his girlfriend along on a harebrained scheme that couldn’t possibly go wrong, so…perhaps his defeat was more inevitable than it seemed. Apparently he gets brought back for the sequel, so.
Rated: man once dreamed of the stars!
This is a solid middle-ranking Shadow story, so it’s an automatic 8/10. There aren’t many outstanding moments, and there is the inimitably incompetent presence of Harry Vincent (dude, your boss doubled back to rescue you, left you standing over an unconscious enemy with a gun in your hand, and still you manage to get knocked out and let him escape) which I’m petty enough to bump the rating down half a star for. (Seriously.)
Nevertheless, that’s still eight out of ten. There’s still a grim, fire-eyed avenger in the night, laughing in the teeth of danger and the face of evil, with twin, mammoth automatics in each black-gloved fist; there’s still innocents to rescue and reputations to save; and there’s still sinister, dastardly, malicious and cunning villains to face and defeat, even though The Shadow must uncover, link by link, the hidden chain of death itself! And also (sigh) Harry Vincent.
So. The 80-page saga begins with young Howard Norwyn, a junior investment broker, signing in at the security desk to enter his employer’s office after hours. Unfortunately, by the time he reaches the office, his employer is dead and the actual murderer proceeds–with obvious, and perfect preplanning–to implicate Norwyn for the crime, and disappear. Fortunately, The Shadow arrives before the police do, susses out the scene, and whisks Norwyn away to safety. Norwyn, unlike some of his ilk, proves cooperative and listens quietly to Lamont Cranston, eccentric globe-trotting millionaire, at his offer of help–little knowing, of course, that, the hawkish, masklike face of Lamont Cranston is one of many that The Shadow sometimes wears.
Meanwhile, an old man dies and, as a reward for faithful (hopeful) service by his conniving young secretary, wills him not money but a secret legacy: original stock and a controlling interest in Crime, Incorporated….
You see, Crime, Incorporated (also nee: Aztec Mines), has a unique method of forming, carrying out, and avoiding consequences for, cunning crimes that might draw suspicion. Each shareholder in Crime, Incorporated knows only two others. They communicate by cipher–a cipher designed to confound the most expert cryptographer. They are men with education, means, and competencies. They are geographically widespread. They have nothing in common, save the penchant to acquire other people’s wealth by whatever means are necessary, and this complete disconnect allows them to assist or abet in crimes without bringing suspicion on themselves. And they have not yet been suspected.
Needless to say, Crime, Incorporated gets its board dissolved in a hostile takeover when The Shadow glides into the fray:
I spoke of a menace, I shall name it. Crime Incorporated has finished its career. The menace that you face will bring destruction.
Again, this book doesn’t have any jawdropping reveals or astounding action beats; the standout scene is when The Shadow materializes on a smuggler’s boat in mid-ocean with an eerie laugh, and proceeds to completely dominate the fight and take over command despite being weaponless at the onset. The small-fry smugglers are so cowed that, The Shadow ashore with the recaptured loot, they nearly wreck their boat trying to get away again.
The bulk of the mystery plot is given to solving the cryptograms by which Crime, Incorporated communicate with each other. Each message from a stockholder is doubled: a trivial one in a code made of circles, and the real one, in a code made of blocks. The circled code can be solved easily with by frequency analyses, but the block code is much more difficult; in conjunction with a simple code, the harder one is meant to make experts think it is a blind. Nevertheless, there are experts…and The Shadow.
Since the villains end up dead and there’s not a huge role to be played by The Shadow’s agents (sigh), there aren’t really any standout characters in this one; Joe Cardona does his thing, as does Burbank, and they stay in the background.
All this seems like damning with faint praise, but it’s really not. It’s a perfectly solid, perfectly-paced, perfectly-scripted, -drawn, and -laid out, compulsively readable pulp-noir novel.
Rated: I am the menace.
So I didn’t even guess that this one was a Theodore Tinsley book until I looked it up on the wiki; before that I had it filed as “well, this was a weird throwback.” The Shadow’s agents are almost completely absent; plot elements jar against the neat and tidy New York that nearly seven years (of publication history) has assured us The Shadow’s efforts have produced; and The Shadow himself (seems) weirdly absent in his own story. Tinsley does a much better job at approximating Gibson’s voice….this time it’s the construction that made me scratch my head a little.
The bulk of the plot concerns a chess match between the Four Napoleons Plus Their Mysterious Leader, and the charismatic and vicious mob boss Tiger Marsh. The Shadow himself is visible primarily only in the disguise as “Lifer” Stone, a criminal released from Sing Sing….IDK, somehow….in order to….IDK, do something? Except Joe Cardona bumbles that, which means that the ersatz Lifer doesn’t get to….IDK, do something else? That he was planning to do? I’m still not sure why Lifer was intended to do, anyway; he’s described as a killer, but killers are a dime a dozen for either side anyway, so…
Meanwhile, the Napoleons are trying to, I dunno, snarfle some money or something and Tiger Marsh is trying to get it from them. And there’s a Judge and his beautiful but dimwitted daughter and then there’s her fiance, who is an editor of The Classic. Or something. The four Napoleons are big-time racketeers, but they are completely cowed by the Fifth, their merciless leader, who also runs a weirdly group of agents, to boot. (Meanwhile, other novels have assured us that not only is being a crime lord a pretty good death sentence in New York these days, thugs are getting weirdly thin on the ground due to The Shadow’s policy of offering them a choice between jail and a one-way ticket to a tropical island.*) Then one of the Napoleons ends up dead and The Shadow delivers a packet of highly incriminating papers to Judge Sherman, except that Judge Sherman’s daughter (did we mention she’s a moron?) is promptly kidnapped by Tiger Marsh!
There’s also a sequence wherein The Shadow infiltrates the Fifth Napoleon’s high-rise lair (in fact we find out that it is only one of many); and honestly I should have twigged it at this moment. A good author sets the stakes and then lets a scenario play out to its finish. A great author sets the stakes, lets the scene play out, and lets the natural end result of the scenario raise or lower them. An uncertain author, or just a poor one, sets the stakes and then keeps attempting to raise them artificially, by injecting fake and unnecessary difficulties into the scene.
The first time I ever twigged onto this was in reading Ice Station by Matthew Reilly. There’s a pool of hungry orcas! There’s a kid on a sagging beam above them! Her fingers are slipping! The beam is on fire! The hero crawls out and grabs her even as her fingers fail and she falls! But ’tis OK, he grabbed on to her hood! BUT OH NOES THE BUTTONS OF HER HOOD START TO POP OFF ONE BY ONE BY ONE!
Now, that was an extreme example and nothing in this book rises remotely to that level…but in the better books, it doesn’t happen at all. The focus stays exactly where it needs to, without zigging off in unnecessary directions, and without unneeded, artificial, unwanted drama. You want to raise stakes, do it at the end of the chapter when the hero bursts into the room, not five times in five paragraphs during the bit while he’s just sneaking up to the door.
(Also The Shadow escapes by diving off a high-rise balcony onto a nearby, lower rooftop pool and badly scares a sunbathing blonde in the process, which is just clumsy, really.)
So, anyhow, with some digressions but with a decent amount of aplomb and a great deal of headlong energy, the plot continues with the cat-and-mousing of Tiger Marsh and the Napoleons. By this time, between Tiger, mysterious gifts of highly incriminating and specific evidence, and the doggedness of Joe Cardona, the Napoleons are definitely on the run and Lifer Stone is rather mysteriously absent. But the tables have not finished revolving yet, and neither has the trick floor in the second, back-up lair. (Revolving floors and trap doors are so prevalent in fiction….well, fiction of a certain genre…that you half-expect to see them in real life. But they’re not practical in the slightest! Think about all the extra effort it would take to make an actual revolving floor that slid down and then rotated away and then clicked back up. Think about how hard it would be to maintain that mechanism! Labor costs for the repair guys! Parts sourcing! Build times! Project secrecy!)
Rated: Anyhow, it’s a good 7/10, and what color are The Shadow’s eyes anyway?
*not kidding about the tropical island. It’s for the potentially-reformable hard cases and they’re kept under the watchful eye of sociologist Slade Farrow.
Books 76-somewhere around 110ish (which covers around two years of publishing time, 1935-1937) were GREAT, uniformly 8/10s or 9/10s and there were some really great stand-outs in that bunch. There was The Python and Zemba, which were 11/10s. There’s also The Voodoo Master and it’s follow-up, City of Doom. Those deserve individual write-ups and I may do them later.
What makes those particular ones great is the antagonists. Doctor Mocquino, The Python, and Zemba are supervillains not only because they have hordes of minions but because they are are intelligent, and they also are constantly on the offensive. When The Shadow–himself a highly aggressive superfoe of crime–is forced onto the defensive, it raises the stakes and it ups the pacing. A smart, aggressive villain (who also commands sufficient firepower, because, let’s face it, at this point everybody knows that’s the only way around the mammoth .45 automatics that are looming for you otherwise), is one of the things that sets a great Shadow story apart from a mediocre one.
I must even mention The Yellow Door in which–hold on to your hats–Harry Vincent DOES NOT GET SLUGGED OVER THE HEAD AND HOLDS HIS OWN UNTIL THE VERY LAST CHAPTER, upon which, yes, he then needs to be rescued, but not before! I know, shocking, right? Mind you, this does come right after The Gray Ghost, in which he lets the damsel of the novel get to his head and then jumps in front of The Shadow’s automatics at the wrong moment but also never mind.
But, unfortunately, then there was a really rough patch in the hundred-teens, reaching an embarrassing nadir in Washington Crimes in which The Shadow fails to disclose the solution to the problem that, admittedly, he solved in chapter one (which would have negated much suffering–most of it his own), is outsmarted in chapter two, spends 95% of the book rushing around the vicinity of Washington whilst being two steps behind both antagonists and, in general, does everything but trip over his own cloak hem throughout.
(In this lot is also the first of the Theodore Tinsley-authored books, Partners in Peril, which was apparently wholesale plagiarized for some of the early Batman stories, and believe me, it shows. Both of these I skipped. The shift from “crime pulp” to “adventure pulp” is not seamless, Tinsley was given the keys and went for a ride, but didn’t even attempt to mimic Walter B. Gibson’s voice. This might probably be a good thing overall, but….
I might return to them later, but then again, I might not.)
And the uncomfortable thing about hitting this patch is that it jolted my immersion. It’s a lot easier to pick apart something that’s poorly done, than something you’re actively enjoying….and unfortunately that run did it. I started analyzing the prose and the structure rather more than I had been for the last (yes, okay) hundred-plus books. Gibson has a pretty distinctive sentence structure, for one thing. If I actually remembered anything about grammar I’d expound on that, but never mind.
Anyhow, what were some of the things I didn’t like? Well:
Heavy reliance on the Lamont Cranston identity, sometimes in back-to-back stories, and without varying the formula. Some of the best books in the series thus far are when The Shadow takes on a completely different identity, often revealed only at the very tail end of the novel as the ultimate–or penultimate–or may be just one other twist in a series of twists. Terror Island, and The Broken Napoleons, for instance. The “Cranston takes a vague yet pointed interest in helping the police with their inquiries” plot wears thin when the same beats play out time after time and yet neither Cardona nor Weston figure things out even slightly.
Not using The Shadow’s agents. I meme the hell out of Harry Vincent, sure, but he serves a valuable narrative purpose when he gets to be on-screen–
–especially when he gets to be on-screen with other Shadow agents, such as Cliff Marsland, Clyde Burke, or Hawkeye. They add humanity, they add tension (generally, yes, because we know Harry Vincent is going to screw up and are waiting to see how), and by their positioning on the chessboard they serve to show, not tell, how much smarter, better-prepared, and better-equipped The Shadow is than the crooks he fights. Speaking of which, we haven’t seen anything of Miles Crofton lately, or The Shadow’s autogyro in general. Crofton’s rather cool, there should be more of him. (Jericho Druke does get a moment to shine in The Golden Masks, though.)
Anyhow, conversely to the first point, that The Shadow is great when lurking in a totally new personality, another way the agents are useful is to showcase The Shadow in his own personality rather than one of his assumed guises. And….it’s pretty neat to watch how this guy commands instant respect whenever he switches on. At the same time, he can comfort the distraught and reassure the innocent with the understated calm that wins their confidence and restores their courage for the fight.
Not building on what was already established, and poorly-structured plots in general. These late novels read like some of the forgettable early ones, in which there is very little actual plot–just a lot of events happening, through which our hero stumbles and over which he has very little control. Not to mention having to frequently zigzag between one plot-point and location to another. One of the things that should set The Shadow apart from other superheroes, such as (pfui) Batman, is that he’s a hero who controls events rather than just reacting to them. Without this, there’s a big chunk missing.
Fortunately, the rough patch ended with The Masked Headsman, and there’s also the standout Quetzal. Now, Quetzal actually is kind of a borderline case, because while it has some of the features I just listed as flaws–use of the Lamont Cranston identity where “Lamont Cranston” has only the thinnest of excuses for being involved, lack of the usual agents, mostly detailing how movement from Point A to Point B is accomplished, and largely reactive rather than active hero–it’s….actually still kind of a great Shadow novel.
In Quetzal, The Shadow is flying down to the west/southwestern border areas to investigate and retrieve valuable military documents being offered up by the crime lord known only as Quetzal. In the opening scene he realizes that the plane has gone off-course, quietly reaches for his automatic, and is promptly jumped by every other passenger onboard, including a middle-aged woman with a .38….y’know, this one also cries out for a full-length write-up, so….
And The Masked Headsman features a full return to working order for all parts of The Shadow’s organization. What does a return to normalcy mean? It means: large sums of lawfully-held money at stake, blood having been spilled, more blood en route to spillage if steps are not taken, a cunning but not really cunning enough villain, innocents in the line of fire. It means that The Shadow has his full deductive capacity and sneakiness and physical prowess on deploy. Also, dirty commies getting blown up by their own leaders in the name of The Cause. Always nice to see that. It even means a return to normal business and the hazards thereof for Harry Vincent, and if you guessed “iron maiden,” then DING you win no prize. (He also gets a hint of a chance of a romance with an exiled Spanish damsel, who is not actually playing him for a dupe in the process! It’s amazing!)
(There are also two, count ’em, two Mad Scientists with Beautiful Daughters.)
At this point, this write-up is long enough in and of itself, so I’ll leave out the discussion of 1937’s The Shadow Strikes and 1938’s International Crime, which were some of the early attempts at adapting The Shadow to the screen, and quite weird attempts they are indeed.
Rated: Yeah. So…..
JUDGE BENBROOK took a single pill and swallowed it. Watching The Shadow, he saw proof of the latter’s statement. The Shadow’s eyes had dulled; his eyelids closed. A relieved smile showed upon the thin lips. Judge Benbrook arose from his chair, faced his daughter with a triumphant gaze.The Shadow #111: “City of Crime”
“He will sleep!” exclaimed the judge. “Soon, he will be well. Meanwhile, my malady will end; for this true friend has discovered its real cause. We shall handle Lunden wisely, Estelle. We shall keep him ignorant of the fact that we have learned his treachery.”
Proudly, the old judge walked to the door of the room; turned to survey The Shadow, who was deep in a drowse. In imposing tone, Judge Benbrook spoke for himself and The Shadow.
“Together,” he predicted, “we shall win this struggle! Truth shall prevail in Westford! When it does, crime will end!”
Those prophetic words must have reached The Shadow, just as he was sinking into a comfortable lethargy. Estelle Benbrook, watching beside the couch, saw thin lips form another smile.
(Review contains spoilers.)
“So I’m still reading those The Shadow stories. They’re quite good. There’s this one that’s very good.
“It starts out with this guy from Scotland Yard tailing the guy on a train and just as he’s about to close in, he finds the guy is dead. So they pick up the guy who killed him going across the Channel and just as they’re about to close in on him they find him dead, he’s been poisoned. So they go along with the French Gendarmes and chase after the guy that got him and when they catch up with him he’s been killed, too. And then they’re looking for the fourth guy and they can’t find him because he is Zemba, the criminal mastermind.
“So The Shadow is after Zemba, and then there’s this French detective guy after him too and so it goes for a while and it’s actually quite clever. And then there’s the scene at the end when everyone’s in a room pointing guns at each other and The Shadow–or the guy we think is The Shadow, because his agents Harry Vincent and Cliff Marsland are following him around–says, ‘well, I can’t take any of the credit, the one who actually tracked down Zemba is you,’ and he points to the French detective guy. But then that guy pulls out his gun on them and says, ‘Well, haha, I’m actually Zemba.’ And then the guy we think is Zemba comes out of the cellar and he’s got a hat and cloak on and he starts to laugh and it’s actually The Shadow.”
“Did you have clues?”
“Yes, actually, it’s just clever enough to be clever. I went back and read through it. There are some little things that the author put in to show he knew what was going on. It’s not super fancy or intricate or anything, it’s just clever enough to be clever. It’s just the amount of details you need for the amount of story that’s there. These are not very complicated stories.”
“The Shadow was the detective?”
“No, Zemba was impersonating the French detective guy. That guy was impersonating The Shadow. He was using The Shadow’s cover identity and The Shadow’s agents thought he was The Shadow. The Shadow was impersonating Zemba and making Zemba’s lieutenants do all the work for him. So he could find the real Zemba. And the stolen war plans, or whatever.”
“Oh. So do they catch Zemba?”
“Well, he catches a bullet.”
“I see. These were primitive times. But that sounds like a good trick if the writer sprinkled enough clues throughout the story so that the audience can figure it out as they go. There should not be one big surprise all at the end. That’s a very cheap trick, if all the writer wants to do is surprise you and they couldn’t figure out how to do it without hiding stuff from the reader.”
“Yeah, but that didn’t happen here. It’s very good. It impressed me enough to go back and re-read over to see if he was cheating, but he wasn’t. These books are very good! This is like, number 94 and I’m on number 100 or so. They’re all a solid 7/10 but some of them are 8 or 9 out of 10 and this one is a 10/10. You should try it.”
“It sounds very mysterious and violent. I might get scared.”
[A/n: been enjoying my four-day weekend, by which I mean: asleep.]
I’ve reached The Shadow #s 76-90, which I am informed were published in and around 1935.
So on we read, from The Triple Trail (mediocre), The Third Skull (I want a burglar-trap pugnatheous-mandibled metal murder skull, even if I’m probably the only one who will get my hand caught in it), and Murder Every Hour (wherein only Lamont Cranston’s
half-assed wacky civilian guesses can consider the idea of there being more than one suspect and therefore more than one alibi. But we are dealing with Commissioner Weston, who was once fully convinced that there was such a thing as an invisible man, so….The “Lamont Cranston tags along on a police investigation” scenes are one of my favorites in this entire series, simply because of the oh-so-innocent descriptions of him standing quietly off to the side and occasionally gently poking stuff. At a certain point he also starts getting sarcastic with Commissioner Weston and gets ordered to leave the scene….What was that sound, Inspector? Did that sound like….a laugh?)
These books are really entertaining. I can’t really say more for them than that at this point, because, well, I’ve read about ninety of them and they’re really freaking fun.
One of Walter B. Gibson’s (alias Maxwell Grant) masterstrokes was not having a single formula for his novels: he has several, and he mixes and matches genres within the pulp realm. He has gangster stories (such as the excellent #75, Lingo), supervillain stories, heist stories (or counter-heist, I suppose), gothic mysteries, and superweapon stories. The main POV can be the innocent bystander of the novel, The Shadow’s agents (generally Cliff Marsland or….sigh…Harry Vincent), or The Shadow himself. Gibson cycles through these, so a string of books with very little of the agents, or very prominent new characters, will be followed up by a story that closely follows The Shadow himself, either as himself or in some cunning disguise.
For The Shadow has many faces–whatever he chooses. Lamont Cranston, globe-trotting millionaire and member of the Cobalt Club, is not the only guise he takes. He’s can be manufacturer Justin Osborne, mysterious traveler Henry Arnaud, or the doddering Phineas Twambly (no kidding), with equal aplomb. The only mark of the true man is the priceless and unique girasol ring on the third finger of his left hand: by this token his friends and agents can recognize him, no matter what face he wears. (It also comes in handy while palming coins for a legerdemain trick to impress some Chinese henchmen still gripped by superstition and devilry.)
But lest we forget that this guy, no matter how benign he is towards the innocent, is one creepy sonufagun, Lamont Cranston (the genuine article) makes a second appearance in Atoms of Death. And a third. And fourth. And a fifth, to the increasing confusion of both the gangsters who were trying to kidnap The Shadow-as-Lamont-Cranston, the real Lamont Cranston, and Lamont Cranston’s faithful servitors. Needless to say, Lamont Cranston promptly decides to take another overseas trip–for his health–but not before The Shadow has a chance to acquire more up-to-date observational data on the subject.
“Jove,” repeated The Shadow, quietly, “You have acquired that expression recently, Cranston. I shall remember it for future reference. You have a penchant for acquiring anglicisms during your sojourns in British colonies. Jove!”
Duuuuuuude. YOU ARE SO CREEPY.
Gibson also expands The Shadow’s range a bit more. While it’s not strictly uncommon for mysteries to happen or crooks to hole up in small towns–and while The Shadow has a history of dashing off to France or Russia–there are several out-of-town stories in a row in this batch. The Mardi Gras Mystery takes place in New Orleans, The London Crimes are in London, The House That Vanished is out in one of those aforementioned small towns, and The Chinese Tapestry is in San Francisco.
Speaking of Chinese, let’s address and then destroy one of the favorite dismissive criticisms of today towards yesterday’s tales: racism. Is The Shadow racist towards Chinese? No. Are there Asian villains? Yes. Are there Asian low-level thugs? Yes, and frankly there are far fewer of them than there are random Caucasian low-level thugs whose only narrative function is to rush in, scream “The Shadow!” and either get pummeled or die. Are there positive representations of Asians in this series? Yes. There is the wise, just, and respected Yat Soon the Arbiter, who appeared in #37, The Grove of Doom but proved to be one of the more important recurring characters. When Yat Soon speaks, the Chinatown saying goes, all must obey (at least, the traditionally-minded do–as well as the gangster leaders and the bigwigs)–and Yat Soon is a friend of The Shadow. Yat Soon is also not strictly above using The Shadow to stay at arms-length from sticky situations, but, as their goals align–peace and justice–they remain on good terms with each other. Gibson does an interesting thing with The Shadow’s conversations to Yat Soon, as The Shadow will speak to him in perfect, unaccented Chinese and Yat Soon answers in perfect, unaccented English.
The Fate Joss also introduces Dr. Roy Tam, an Americanized version of Yat Soon, who is dedicated to helping his countrymen assimilate into modern American society and throw off the shackles of superstition. Dr. Roy Tam, mostly from the virtue of not being blindingly incompetent and having his own organization in place, becomes an high-ranking agent of The Shadow almost overnight. Nice.
Speaking of new agents, we are finally introduced to Miles Crofton in person. Crofton has had a number of off-page appearances, piloting The Shadow’s autogiro, but The Chinese Tapestry is the first time we see him on the ground. (So to speak.) He, uh….well, in his and in Harry Vincent’s defense, there was a big badass battle scene going on at the time and the lights all got turned out. But, let’s just say he probably ought to stay in the air and do daredevil stunts like dropping The Shadow off onto the back of a moving train…that’s rushing through a mountain canyon. This sort of thing would have been much more impressive back in the day without CGI.
Speaking of badass battle scenes: these stories, if ever adapted, would need to put about 90% of their budgets towards stunts and gunfights. They’d just need to. You need a John Wick-level and John Wick-style to do them justice.–and if you did that, you’d have three quarters of your audience (the male 75%) right there. All you need after that is to make sure you’ve filled the rest of the cast with hot guys and you’ve got the remaining female percentage in the bag. Anyhow. Even if the writing of the fights is stilted (it’s miles better than before), there’s so much imagination in them they come across as just awesome. Every time The Shadow interrupts a deadlock by stepping into the light with a booming laugh–drawing all guns to him as a target–what follows deserves epic treatment.
The Chinese Tapestry features a scene at an auction wherein The Shadow (gun)fights off a load of Mexican and Caucasian thugs, a bunch of Chinese (presumed to be thugs, actually loyal servitors) swarm the two innocent-bystanders of the novel–who fight back against all comers–and The Shadow’s two agents attempt to get the duo to safety, with them still fighting tooth and nail….and then the lights go out and only the noise of gunfire and eerie laughter resounds….and despite how clunkily it’s written, it’s still freaking badass. Despite both Harry Vincent and Miles Crofton getting laid out flat, sigh. OTOH, The Shadow also gets clocked by a thug with a pipe wrench in The Ribbon Clues and goes punch-drunk for a full two paragraphs, so perhaps it’s forgivable.
Honestly, I think something like that would have made a better cover illustration, but never mind.
(The Ribbon Clues features another rich uncle dying and leaving hidden assets to whomever can solve the riddle: three pieces of ribbon with two letters on them. Early in the book we see one ribbon–stolen by the villain–with the letters E S. The villain also gets a second ribbon, which audience does not get to see. Near the end, though, the third ribbon, R X, is found by the law officials (and that tag-along, Lamont Cranston).
It takes Lamont Cranston just a few minutes of brainstorming to turn R X into X E R X E S, point out the pre-printed letters plus faded and worn condition of the ribbon suggest a part of a ship captain’s uniform, and connect the deceased uncle’s past as a shipping magnate and importer with the existence of a retired but not yet dismantled ghost ship, Xerxes, docked inland with a skeleton crew still remaining. I feel rather smug about guessing Xerxes before Cranston did, but I did get to see two more letters than he did…)
It might not have been this case, but it was somewhere in this batch that we get the immortal line from Commissioner Weston, “Damn that appointment of Cranston’s! I was going to insist that he cancel it and come with us.” Did that sound like a whispered laugh to you? It sounded like a snigger to me.
Oh! And I almost forgot: Harry Vincent gets killed.
It’s temporary, though.
Rated: DAMNIT THULER YOU HAD ONE JOB. ONE JOB!
[Back in the day (2017), I seem to have skipped over #2, The Eyes of the Shadow. The Shadow Laughs is the third book of the opening trilogy.]
This one starts out the gate strong. Frank Jarnow is admitted to the lodgings of the wealthy playboy Henry Windsor at precisely 8:00 pm. He states that he is not expected and will wait for his friend, as he has urgent business. Henry Windsor ambles in some time later. Unfortunately for Frank Jarnow’s urgent business, Windsor is stupid drunk, and in no condition to understand what Jarnow has to tell him about–
At which point Jarnow is shot. Windsor, horrified, naturally picks up the gun that was used to do it, and when the authorities come crashing in, is waving it around screaming that “You’ll be sorry for this, I’ll kill you all.”
The officer on scene, Harrison, considers this a slam-dunk case. Fortunately, Detective Griffiths is rather brighter than his compatriot, and notices the traces of a clever, daring, and cool-headed man who was able to enter the room, murder a man, and escape through the uproar without leaving a trace of himself besides a scrap of paper in the dead man’s hand with the letters “or” on it. V. mysterious, that.
Griffiths goes to the morgue to confirm his theory, carefully avoiding speaking to the nosy reporter who has also inveigled his way down there.
Unfortunately, it isn’t a reporter, and he puts Griffiths’ body on a trestle and walks out with a cool one-liner and disappears into the concrete jungle.
So far so good. And it gets better.
The scene switches over to Fellows (The Shadow’s information aggregator), who is tallying reports and thinking, a bit smugly, of how he now knows Lamont Cranston–whom he saw injured in the previous book–is The Shadow…when in walks Lamont Cranston, back from California. Cranston has a peculiar question to ask his friend: when was it that we last met? Because his valet seems to think he was recently injured, and that he had met with Fellows within the past few weeks–impossible, since Cranston had been in California for the past six months….
Fellows assumes that his loyalty is being tested, but….
Meanwhile, The Shadow is investigating both murders, reconstructs the crime, and profiles the culprit:
The murderer is five feet nine inches tall. Weighs approximately one hundred and sixty pounds. Wore black shoes, and a blue suit of rough cloth. Is right-handed. A crook of experience who can use a gun or a knife with equal facility.
Then these notations were added:
In appearance, the man is striking. Jarnow must have recognized him immediately. Yet he does not appear to be a crook; he is smooth, and convincing. Griffith did not suspect him.
….and exits, stage left, with a cackle.
At this point, the narrative takes a hard turn for the creepy when Lamont Cranston, millionaire playboy, wakes to find a dark figure at the foot of his bed–wearing his face.
The Shadow informs him that he has taken on the identity of Lamont Cranston, and it will be good for his health to take a long vacation in Europe….and if he chooses not, things will go very badly indeed for Lamont Cranston, millionaire playboy….
Brr. This scene is legitimately chilling, as The Shadow details the ways in which he controls the Lamont Cranston identity and can easily denounce the real man as an imposter.
Anyhow, there’s an interlude back in gangsterland, as a man named Reds Macklin hustles Spotter to find a man who is five foot nine, one hundred and sixty pounds, can use a gun or knife with equal facility, acts and talks like a gentleman, and is cool under pressure. Some way through the conversation, Spotter realizes that he isn’t actually speaking to the real Reds Macklin, and makes an escape. A haunting chuckle follows him out of the room….
Enter (sigh), Harry Vincent. Harry is kept busy for the rest of the book, hanging out with Henry Windsor’s brother, Blair; and is under the impression that he is to identify the man who killed Jarnow and is stalking Blair–which is either of two candidates who are Blair’s houseguests. As is usual with Harry Vincent, this plot is painfully boring and the incidents are prolonged by Harry’s ineptness. Suffice it to say that Blair is actually the bad guy and that (I think) this gang is also after the jewels that Bruce Whatshisface in the previous book had. Maybe. Or something. Isaac Coffran is involved but gets away; Henry Windsor is cleared when The Shadow forces a confession out of the dying murderer, and….well, the end. The Shadow knows, brah.
How is it all holding up?
The books are good enough entertainment when something is actually happening, or The Shadow doing something other than lurking, shadowy-ly, or eavesdropping. Also, there is an acute lack of Harry Vincent for the first half of the book, which is a major plus. Again, the writing is fairly beige and characterizations flat. That’s ok. This is a pulp novel, and an early entry, too.
What’s bad is that lack of action combined with the above; in the absence of characters, interesting dialogue, situations, epic scenery, or…I’m sorry to admit it, romance–there’s nothing to keep the reader (my!) interest in the story. It feels like nothing’s happening, and that what is happening is unimportant.
Aspiring authors take note. If in doubt at all, have someone burst in with an automatic in hand. Even better, have him shoot someone with it.
Rating: 2.5 counts of identity theft out of five.