The Shadow Magazine #192 – The Invincible Shiwan Khan

shadow_magazine_vol_1_193So….

I have thus far been highly and remarkably unimpressed with Shiwan Khan. In each of three outings so far, he’s had a predictable pattern: 1) arrive in New York, purpose: World Domination! 2) hypnotize white American girl into thinking she’s Chinese and serving as his messenger, 3) attempt to bribe, steal, or inveigle goods or services that, WITH YOUR LIMITLESS ORIENTAL WEALTH OF MYSTERIOUS ORIGINS YOU COULD VERY WELL HAVE LEGITIMATELY PURCHASED, HELLO, 4) get caught by The Shadow, 5) run away like a little bitch.

The pattern gets set in The Golden Master, Shiwan Khan’s first appearance, and I mentioned how underwhelming an antagonist he was there. It’s reinforced in Shiwan Khan Returns, the ending of which features the Kha Khan completely failing to accomplish anything except the manufacture and theft of a piecemeal helicopter, which he uses to, as previously indicated, run away with his tail between his legs. The pattern continues in The Invincible Shiwan Khan, although it does get switched up somewhat with the addition of Dr. Roy Tam and the likes of Vic Marquette. Shiwan Khan also switches tactics yet again from using flashing lights or even distinctive sounds as a method of mental resonance for contacting his victims. Now he uses…smells. Yeah, smells. Seriously.

Yes, Shiwan Khan–with his ability to telepathically overwhelm weak or unprepared minds–is personally dangerous. But when what he’s up against is The Shadow he’s also just….so damn outclassed. He’s rather pathetic and I’m not sure how this guy ended up as “The Shadow’s greatest archenemy.” I mean, aside from Walter B. Gibson hyping it up on purpose. It really doesn’t come across nearly so well when an author deliberately writes a character to be The Archenemy, honest-to-whiskers it’s gonna be so awesome when they meet next time!!!….as when it happens naturally. One feels that Doctor Moquino was a bit more of a natural case, because each time when he died, it was with an appropriate sense of “I shot him and he fell into a river, off an exploding barge,” or, “I shot him a bunch and left him inside an inescapable death maze of a house, which exploded.” And finally, “I shot him a bunch AND saw him fall down a bottomless fissure into a cavern that has no exits or way back up.” At least those deaths weren’t punctuated with breathlessly smug narrator informing us that Shiwan Khan would meet his fate! One of these days. Next volume. Somewhere along the road. Also, Doctor Moquino didn’t ever cut and run: he stayed to fight it out each time, which, y’know, I can respect.

All that being said, Shiwan Khan actually does manage to escape with his life, though this is not  particularly impressive (see: “like a little bitch”); and he does take a bunch of unwitting victims along with him. Part of this is lies with the fact that The Shadow of the 1940s is no longer the invincible, unknowable, alien figure of dread, bravura, and the night itself. Apparently, the editorial decision was made to tone him down and make him more….unimpressive. He still wields .45s, but now he largely “clips” thugs (Thuggees?) rather than dropping them; and that’s when he’s not just pistol-whipping them instead. His laugh tends to be more of a narrative device, not to mention a long-range communication method (no, seriously), than a genuine expression of challenging, or ironic, blood-thirsty, or ghoulish mirth.  Almost all of the clever/mastermind-level crooks have identified Lamont Cranston with The Shadow, even if they don’t really know the whole secret of that particular dual identity. And it takes him two whole minutes to wrestle a naljorpa into submission.

While The Shadow does outwit and outmaneuver Shiwan Khan at every step of the way (except the steps that involve not sending Harry Vincent to uncover vital information), he also misses his shot by a fraction of an inch due to (I am not making this up) the oriental fiend’s cunning construction of his new Throne Room as a slant-floored funfair-type crazy room. (That being said, an inferior Shadow is still superior to basically any other hero out there, because he still retains the essence of his character: knowing at least as much as the audience does, and pure, raw, undiluted will.)

Anyhow. Plot. 1) Shiwan Khan arrives back in New York, now styling himself Shiwan Tulku and while still employing what’s left of his Mongol horde, now also assisted by a gaggle of skeletal Tibetan naljorpas, mystics who have seen The Other Side and are now amply content to pass the veil of this life for the next. He intends on 2) stealing, not riches or weapons, but people this time. 3) Shiwan Khan hypnotically recruits Lana Luan (nee: Beatrice Chadbury, and yes, he takes the same frikking girl under control as his pawn again), to serve as a messenger. Which promptly leads to 4), because you do not mess with people whom The Shadow has rescued.

I mean, aside from Harry Vincent: professional rescuee.

Anyhow, 4) continues with The Shadow deftly outmaneuvering Shiwan Khan’s first attempt to eliminate him and also exposes him–and an inkling of his methods–to the New York City police. Commissioner Weston, once convinced, promptly calls in the FBI. The Shadow susses out Shiwan Khan’s new game–luring suitable disciples with the promise of their uttermost desires in Xanadu, a city the likes of which Shangri-La has got nothing on–and, while losing the requisite Random Mad Inventor, gets a bead on Lana Luan and a direct line to whatever Shiwan Khan’s next move is going to be.

Part of the reason Shiwan Khan is just, as mentioned, so damn outclassed is The Shadow’s organization. We’ve seen his agents–Moe, Hawkeye, Burbank, Cliff Marsland, Jericho Druke and (sigh) Harry Vincent–at work so many times before. We’ve seen them respond instantly to a low-toned whisper in the dark, seen them fling themselves into hopeless danger with only the trust in the mighty fighter who is their chief to rescue them, seen them lay down enfilade fire and rally to the mysterious blinks of a tiny, changing light. We know how well the team works, and here, they’re a well-oiled machine, amply aided by Dr. Roy Tam and his modernized Chinese-Americans. (Yat Soon, the Arbiter, one surmises, has been forgotten or perhaps has joined his ancestors.)

There’s also, because wouldn’t it come in useful if there was someone we could use as bait for the guy who likes to hypnotize beautiful women into thinking they’re Chinese and using them as minions, the linguistically-gifted Myra Reldon, an FBI asset. Myra has popped up before, generally with the alias of Ming Dwan and yellow-toned pancake makeup, in various ventures in which The Shadow plays a starring role. The adventures she experienced make her someone who responds instantly when a note arrives, written in fading ink and showing for a crest and signature the fleeting outline of a hawklike profile, topped with a broad slouch hat! (A previous volume shows that The Shadow producing the effect by twisting his hands together in a strange, supple fashion. Which, well. Okay, that is kind of cool. Do Deformed Rabbit now.)

Anyhow. Lana Luan is neutralized and Ming Dwan placed as a mole inside Shiwan Khan’s organization, The Shadow maps out the entire underground lair and the FBI is notified. Vic Marquette, who has worked with (for) The Shadow before, obeys implicitly. Dr. Roy Tam’s organization provides cover (dragons make everything awesome), and the countertrap is faultlessly sprung! However, since we are only at about 70% of the way through the novel, something is bound to go wrong and it promptly does with the aforementioned funhouse trick throne room and then, also, a firebomb.

And so on until we get to 5) which, dude, really….how can you say The Shadow–who had plenty of time to map out the entirety of the evil headquarters–seriously didn’t take thirty seconds more to stick his head inside the throne room itself? But anyhow, there’s also the matter of Harry Vincent still stuck aboard a yacht along with lots of other innocent (dumb) people who stopped to sniff the roses….

So it ends, rather frustratingly, with 6) the rather unenthusiastic promise that Shiwan Khan will return and This Time it’ll be the last one.

One would hope so, anyway.

Anyhow.

I don’t really feel like discussing how the 1990s movie pulled its ideas really heavily from the Shiwan Khan arc and this story in particular (there’s a phurba in this one, but it is actually given its deadly ability via a trick mummy case and a really skinny guy hiding in back…)

Rated: Fractions of an inch won’t cut it. Kill him already!

The Shadow Magazine #186 – City of Ghosts

shadow_magazine_vol_1_186Oddly enough, The Shadow’s real nemeses aren’t the fiendish and dastardly masterminds that spring up, have grandiose nicknames that are not nearly as impressive as they think they are (see: The Death Giver and The Python), commanding heaps upon heaps of minions ready to positively leap into the fray against a cackling black-clad figure with two .45s. You’d think that after a while the supply of such minions would lessen, but, well, whatever.

As it turns out, The Shadow’s real and most highly persistent struggles are with: a) standing with his back to open doors and/or windows, and b) country bumpkins with shotguns. No, really, he tends to have genuine trouble with country boys, since they generally aren’t dyed-in-the-wool crooks who already know, fear, and dread the dimmest inkling of his presence. He can’t and won’t shoot innocents, even to spare his own life; and they tend to have numbers, shotguns, and a good reason for aiming both of them towards the nearest and most likely target….which is generally The Shadow, standing between them and the actual bad guys.

Also: it is a truth universally acknowledged that you have Made It as a pulp hero when you have defeated a giant reptile in its own habitat. Tarzan managed it in his thirdmost book, going knife-to-snout with a giant crocodile in the depths of a Deepest African River. The Shadow does similar here, only with the sensible aid of a .45 and also using a wooden post to jam into its mouth while he delivers the killing shots. Come to think of it, though, The Shadow also has previously fought and defeated Koon Woon (giant python) in #137 – Grove of Doom, so that should also count. Admittedly, that is a sample size of two here, but they’re both iconic heroes, so my point stands. If anyone has other instance of pulp heroes fighting giant reptiles, send ’em in.

So.

City of Ghosts begins with a visit by Lamont Cranston (wearing his real estate investor hat) to the extremely depopulated Pomelo City–a place so plagued by bad luck, ill fortune, mysterious plagues, and the extremely localized reappearance of the otherwise-extinct Florida black wolf (seriously, heh)–that only three men remain in the town itself, under the literal gaze of a flock of buzzards, even. Outside of town, there’s a lone big-money rancher, Clenwick, who has taken over the mortgages of many other cattlemen in the area, and only one family of any importance: the Severns. The Severns’ mortgage is also held by Clenwick, but he….lives with them and pays them rent? Or something. And there’s a bunch of ranch hands and country bumpkins (“crackers”) living in the vicinity, too, but they don’t, y’know, count except when it comes to screaming and shooting wildly at things. More on this later.

The remaining three townsmen shortly becomes two after the introduction of a mob crew hiding out in a dilapidated gas station, working for a shifty character named Enwald. There’s also another mob crew, one which works for Tony Belgo, a New Yorker in search of a better business opportunities. Ones that are less…shadowy, you might say.

This also introduces the crackers-with-shotguns angle, as a couple carloads of them come rolling into town just as The Shadow has burst out of a burning building and sledges down a couple of baddies–and it also introduces a central conceit of this novel, which is that The Shadow becomes very, very firmly identified in everybody’s mind as an actual ghost, appearing briefly and then blending weirdly with the roiling smoke and the darkness of night.

Back to the plot: the remaining (two) townsmen actually have a workable plan for developing a local spring into a tourist attraction: a beautiful area with a rock fall and pool where, once, a mighty warrior sacrificed himself by diving into the water below.

Meanwhile, Lamont Cranston saves young Laura Severn from a giant, man-eating-sized alligator. This gets him into the Severn / Clenwick household, where he is introduced to her wheelchair-bound, embittered brother, Roger. He is also able to witness the ingress of Enwald to the group. Enwald, it transpires, is looking for and/or connected with “Terry Knight,” a Texan wildcatter who briefly passed through the area and then moved on, address unknown, current location unknown, status unknown. (He dead, Jim.)

The Shadow–despite sussing out the true players and angles here–is operating single-handed here, and between the ranch hands opening fire whenever they see him, the crackers opening fire (while screaming in superstitious horror) whenever they see him, and the mobsters opening fire (while screaming in entirely reasonable terror) whenever they see him, he’s got his work cut out for him.

An interesting part of this novel–note cover–is the use of fire, somewhat more consistently (thematically?) than other books. The Shadow is first revealed as “the ghost” via a building fire. Later on, he lights a brush fire, only to be revealed again by its light and (remember those screaming crackers with shotguns?) forced to take on the semblance of the legendary Seminole ghost warrior by diving into the rock pools below. But this isn’t where it finishes. There is an all-things-awesome scene later on in the novel, when, during the climactic battle, The Shadow is outnumbered and under hard-pressed retreat. Suddenly, his foes to draw up in baffled shock: he has vanished utterly, black garb shrouding him invisibly on the ash-covered ground burnt by the wildfire. More, as the climax to that final battle, he ignites the slime-filled giant sinkhole with a flare–revealing that it is filled with, not stagnant water, but oil–reason enough for….but that would be telling.

What’s more, this story has somewhat more heart than the usual. Lamont Cranston’s befriending of the winsome blonde isn’t unusual, as he’s always been a (calm, indifferent) charmer; it’s his brief relationship with the crippled Roger Severn that really gains importance.

They were almost at the glen, when Roger broke loose with a bitter outburst that proved a real index to his mood.
“Everybody lets me down,” he grumbled. “Clenwick talked about sending me to a New York specialist, but he’s been too busy to attend to it. Cranston handed me a lot of soft soap that I might have believed, if he hadn’t shown himself a fool, last night.
“He said I’d forgotten how to walk; that if I made up my mind to it, I’d be on my feet again. He said if I couldn’t do it on my own, he’d shock me into it. He argued that the strength of my arms proved that my legs were strong, too.
“So why should you have the weeps? Cranston didn’t promise you anything, then let you down, Laura. But he did just that to me.”

But it soon transpires that The Shadow is as good as his word, and the audience is able to witness an embittered, damaged, helpless young man redeem himself, make amends to his remaining family–and, indirectly, help save the city of ghosts from the man who would make it a city of the dead!

Not bad for a story that’s all of seventy-odd pages long and eighty-three years old.

Rated: I see a knight of ghosts and shadows–I see a soul of iron and flame–

The Shadow Magazine #182 – The Golden Master

shadow_magazine_vol_1_182So among The Shadow aficionados, Shiwan Khan and the stories featuring him are said to be considered among the best of the best–the most challenging villain, the most evocative plots, the most deadly escapades. Shiwan Khan was the only villain to return four times in different novels (Diamond Bert Farwell returned twice, and Doctor Moquino, three.) He’s iconic enough that the 1991 movie cribbed heavily from his stories–including this one–for material.

The only problem is, Shiwan Khan’s introduction is distinctly underwhelming. Shiwan Khan himself is introduced appropriately, built up in standard style, shown to have both a grandiose aim (world rulership, naturally) and practical vision for attaining it (munitions and airplanes), and a deadly and mysterious ace in the hole (the ability to telepathically control certain people in certain circumstances.) He has minions galore, including his own trick taxicab ring. The thing is….

….there’s never really a sense of threat to him.

Possibly, this is a factor of Shiwan Khan just not scoring a very high body count and holding the city in terror, the way Doctor Moquino did. Or, it could be because The Shadow susses out his main trick and the way to counter it extremely early on in the story. Then, too, Shiwan Khan’s blackmail scheme against the civilian proxy heroes of the novel is shown to be compromised almost immediately after it occurs, diluting that source of danger. And then finally, The Shadow recognizes the true danger of the threat in true Shadow style and responds promptly with every single agent he has or can call on in a pinch. (Minus Miles Crofton, who hasn’t been seen since Shadow over Alcatraz, but, of course, including Harry Vincent. Sigh.)

So. Plot. Shiwan Khan can mentally connect with certain people by using a system of flashing lights to hypnotize them and also himself; while under his control, he can order them to do practically anything–such as alter the contracts for a large shipment of airplanes, and then march out to an unknown location, pick up a gun, and shoot someone.–which is where Paul Brent, the civilian-of-the-novel, finds himself after the sound of a gong breaks his trance. A beautiful girl in Chinese dress takes the gun from him, and he books it without stopping to ask too many questions, such as why her eyes are glazed over. It might as well be revealed now that she is actually Beatrice Chadbury, the missing and hypnotically compelled niece of a wealthy munitions manufacturer, who has a new lamp in the corner of his study, a lamp that sometimes flickers and flashes….

Soon after, The Shadow arrives at the scene of the murder, and after a brief game of cat-and-mouse, gets into a tussle with the Mongol minion who was stationed on site to make sure both of the pawns did what they were actually supposed to. The minion escapes, wounded, and The Shadow makes a quick exit while the cops are flatfooting it up the stairs. The police actually uncover the next clue, while Lamont Cranston loafs around with his buddy the police commissioner: a valuable and rare Asian ruby, which can be traced more immediately back to a reclusive and antisocial collector, Twindell, who has recently begun liquidating his jewelry collection in lieu of ancient, priceless porcelain dragons….sourced from Tibet.

Meanwhile also, mobbie Flash Gidley has acquired a fancy new radio set, with colored lights that flash in a weird, enticing manner….And so it goes, with the caveats that I mentioned before: despite Shiwan Khan’s best efforts, he just doesn’t seem like very much of a threat. He’s the sort of villain who gloats while the going is good and then cuts and runs immediately when it turns against him….which probably does explain why he lives to snivel another day, come to think of it. (Also: he has a swivel mechanism built into his throne, which, PWAH.)

Thing is: The Voodoo Master is a much better story than this, and Doctor Moquino is a stronger villain just on the one-off. Heck, The Crime Master was a better villain than this, and he was basically Dark Helmet playing with his dolls. The way to be a dangerous villain in The Shadow stories is a) to have an impregnable base (note: underground bases are actually more likely to be invaded and destroyed than skyscraper-based ones), b) to have a large enough organization to afford to take massive casualties, c) to be constantly on the aggressive, and d) constantly on the move. The key is forcing The Shadow to defend innocents instead of just tracking you down and shooting you dead, and also staying mobile enough that he doesn’t get a good fix on you and loop the cops in. Shiwan Khan has obviously never read either the Evil Overlord List, or preceding Shadow volumes.

All that being said, this is still a decent mid-tier Shadow story, and there are some additional bits of lore revealed, such as the what’s inside B. Jonas office that The Shadow uses for a contact point, but whose door is cobwebbed shut and which has never been seen to be opened or inhabited. Turns out there’s a secret entrance in the back closet, and The Shadow leaves a spare cloak and slouch hat there so anyone entering will think that they’ve found the way to his sanctum, instead of a mail drop.

Rated: I’m kinda really wanting to get a slouch hat, but….

The Shadow Magazine #67 – The Unseen Killer

shadow_magazine_vol_1_67So it appears that I have been doing the brisk Police Commissioner Weston a disservice. He has not, in fact, ever been convinced of the presence of an invisible man, to the point of ordering his detectives to take appropriate actions when guarding doors and windows against said invisible murderer’s entry–or exit. It was actually Commissioner Barth.

Weston, you see, departed New York somewhere around mid-1934 for a heroic stint establishing a….tyrannical police state in a dubiously-named South American nation, okay. His replacement, Wainwright Barth, is something special, even by pulp fiction incompetent detective standards. (It’s explained that Barth lobbied intensively for the job and got it mostly because a) being a former financier, he was able to handle the administrative portions of it, b) absolutely no one else wanted to. It’s also explained that Weston gets his job back very quickly once he returns.)

This era of Shadow stories is interesting, since globe-trotting millionaire Lamont Cranston maintains a friendship with both police commissioners, frequently gets invited out to crime scenes, and is solicited for his opinion on tricky matters. The difference is that while Weston will begrudgingly acknowledge when Cranston has a good point, Barth gets agitated when his own investigative incompetence is highlighted. Needless to say, Cranston handles both with aplomb and, often, the trailing echo of a whispered laugh.

So. An invisible murderer. An incompetent police force. The Shadow. What else does this book contain? Well, for one: a mad scientist, an ex-aviator and soldier of fortune, a couple of majority stockholders, a group of swindlers, a couple of slick gang leaders, and more gun-toting mobbies than you can shake a stick at.

The majority stockholders have lost a lot of money to a trio of swindlers. However, one of them still has a lot of faith in the mad scientist he is funding–despite the failure of the last big invention, which also lost money–and, in order to assuage the doubts of other board members, arranges a viewing of the latest: a device for the devisualization of solids. Lamont Cranston, wearing his tech investor hat (would he be a SpaceX shareholder today, one wonders….), and Commissioner Barth are along for the ride. We know there is going to be major hijinx, because we have also seen the two main mob leaders (themselves, of course, acting on behalf of the Big Boss), meticulously planning a hideout and alibis.

The devisualization test subject is Miles Crofton, a former aviator and soldier of fortune; a capable man with some unsavory associations in his past. He disappears, but then also escapes the laboratory. Threatening letters signed by “The Unseen Killer” are found almost immediately, and, shortly, one of the swindlers gets murdered in his own home. The doors and windows are locked and there is no sign of forced entry.

To give some credit to Commissioner Barth, he does propose a second test of the devisualization device–casually volunteering ace detective Joe Cardona as the guinea pig, heh–but the mad scientist’s sudden death (accompanied by another threatening letter) only reinforces his belief that there really is an unseen killer around. The Unseen Killer promptly demands that the remaining two swindlers turn their ill-gotten money back over to him, on pain of….death. The Shadow, of course, has sussed out the disappearance, and the basics of the ongoing scheme, but with the death-by-gunshot-wound of the first lead, he and his agents must scour the underworld for the next, looking for both the plotters and the not-really-invisible man–and the unseen mastermind behind it all.

And so it goes, down to a very satisfying climax indeed.

So, at the slight risk of spoiling a 92-year-old novel, Miles Crofton is innocent and in fact becomes one of the Shadow’s agents. He’s got rather the most thankless task of any agent–yes, even more so than Harry Vincent–because he’s the private pilot to one of the most badass aviators in all of pulp or adventure fiction.

Speaking of agents, they’re present but far in the background. Harry Vincent and Cliff Marsland end up on the active side of a kidnap-slash-rescue operation, for once. Jericho Druke gets to pop up, bang some heads together, and then play innocent once the police arrive. Pietro the fruitcart vendor makes his second and I believe last appearance, possibly because it’s lampshaded how conspicuous and improbable he is on a stakeout team. And the hunchy, ambling Hawkeye provides one of the biggest breaks in the case, by uncovering the Unseen Killer’s hideout spot.

Gibson’s Shadow stories didn’t contain much outright funny bits, but there’s more than a generous sprinkling of dry, sly humor to them–such as Joe Cardona’s uneasiness at being voluntold to become the next Invisible Man, or Cranston’s missed sarcasm to Commissioner Barth. (A different story sees Cranston and a tubby civilian banker get taken hostage and encouraged to stick ’em up. The narrator observes: “[civilian’s] hands went up as if impelled by springs. Cranston’s followed at a more leisurely pace.”)

Rated: Really, Commissioner? Really?

The Shadow Magazine #171 – Death Ship

shadow_magazine_vol_1_171The difference between The Shadow and many another hero is that, even when he does trip over his cloak hem and, for instance, end up getting his ass handed to him by a group of unexpected Japanese jujutsu masters, he recovers, lays plans, takes precautions, and is completely in control whenever Round Two starts–and thereafter.

The Shadow is a proactive and dominant hero. He doesn’t take orders, he gives orders, and expects them to be obeyed; he does not seek advice; he gives it. And if he’s never, ever, the underdog.

So! As can be inferred, The Shadow starts this book decidedly off on the wrong foot: sneaking up on the site of an experimental speedboat (the Barracuda), a brunette gets the drop on him, as do several thugs with rifles; then the jujutsu masters burst in from the rear and (what makes it funny is that he’s noted to be definitely smarting about this later) beat the crap out of the guy who is extremely used to diving into the midst of a clump of thugs, “arms sledging.” Adding still further insult to injury, brunette, boat, and disreputable soldier of fortune disappear into the Pacific waves; and adding further injury the boathouse explodes, trapping The Shadow in its depths as it collapses. This all happens by chapter two, by the way.

And here’s another difference between The Shadow and other heroes. The Shadow doesn’t ever get rescued. Now, of course, there have been times when he has been content to stay put and wait for his agents to come haul him out of the spike pit; but those are times decided by policy and/or crippling injury. The Shadow is never outmatched by the villains, and when circumstance places him at a disadvantage, he uses his keen wit and untiring brawn to mitigate that disadvantage, and then reverse it. The Shadow usually firmly has the upper hand in conflicts, a status most heroes aren’t allowed to have in the first place. He does lose that upper hand periodically, but when he does, he gains it back through his own effort rather than authorial fiat.

In this case, this involves just barely dragging himself out of the rubble ahead of the rising tide and crawling back to shore under cover of darkness. It’s some time later before Lamont Cranston, somehow looking none the worse for wear, returns to his hotel and consults the newspapers to find out what has been going on.

The Barracuda has taken to piracy. The prime suspect is its inventor, a Commander Prew, who resigned from the Navy to escape a court-martial and whose intentions in marketing the boat are considered suspect. Among the suspects: the Japanese not-at-all-official envoy, Ishi Sotoyo, to whom The Shadow pays a discrete visit….only to find that his Cranston guise has been made and, worse, that he’s been expected. (Sidenote: there is not one, not one singular instance in the 171 books so far in which The Shadow, making an entrance with an ominous loom, a .45, and a cackle, does not immediately have the tables turned on him by someone approaching from the rear. You’d think the man would learn to keep his back against a wall, or something.)

Still, the Japs being a civilized people, a civilized and mutually informative discussion is had with Sotoyo, after which he intends to betray The Shadow, and also after which The Shadow leaves him tied up with his own belt. The result is that the Japanse are highly interested in the boat and its soldier-of-fortune ersatz captain (Felix Sergon) but definitely not to the extent of causing open trouble with the American government. The Shadow also gains a lead on Commander Prew’s financial backer, who has been in hiding. He’s already dead; but we get, in payment for some of the humiliations already dealt him by the totally-not-ninja squad, The Shadow materializing out of the darkness in their very midst as they creep through the apartment, delivering an awesome whispered warning, and then fading back into the black without a sound.

The next step is locating Commander Prew himself. It turns out there are two Z-boats: the Barracuda and the smaller, lighter, Lamprey. Although helped by covert signals from the brunette (bet you forgot about her) being held captive on the Barracuda, the Lamprey is unable to make contact with the Barracuda after an initial search, but The Shadow susses out that the now-completely piratical Sergon will likely be going after a Japanese ship hauling five million dollars in gold bullion. He joins this ship as a passenger, and pays a visit to Ishi Sotoyo, purely and solely for the opportunity to revengefully return the indignity paid to him at their first meeting:

Across the cabin, a man was seated by a desk. His back was turned and his huddled
position made it difficult to judge his height. The Shadow quietly closed the door, then took a chair of his own. From beneath his cloak, he drew an automatic; with the same move, he let his cloak slide from his shoulders. Peeling off his gloves, he removed his hat.
As Lamont Cranston, he sat with his .45 leveled right between the shoulder blades of the
man by the desk.
The hardest part of The Shadow’s whole endeavor was to attract the man’s attention. He
wanted to do it to a degree of nicety; to excite curiosity, rather than alarm. Slight scuffles,
shifting of the chair— neither seemed to work. It was not until the tone of seven bells came
vaguely to the cabin that The Shadow had the perfect opportunity.
The man in the chair looked up from his book. Momentarily diverted from his reading, he
heard the slight stir that The Shadow made. The man looked about, came halfway from his
chair in his surprise. He froze in that position when he saw the automatic.
A whispered laugh came from The Shadow’s fixed lips. He relished this situation. It was a
complete reversal of one that had been engineered at his own expense. He had not
forgotten a certain night in San Francisco. Nor had the man from the chair.
That man was Ishi Soyoto.

Dude, you petty.

Anyhow, the Barracuda located, the Lamprey takes up the chase. There are hostages–not to mention a brave and loyal brunette–to be rescued…

Rated: Hot sub-on-sub action, woah.

Review – Silver Skull – (The Shadow Magazine No. 165)

shadow_magazine_vol_1_165So, 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.

QuikReview: The Star Kings – Edmund Hamilton

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!

The Shadow Magazine Vol. 1 No. 58 – Chain of Death (Review)

shadow_magazine_vol_1_58This 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.

The Shadow #143 – The Fifth Napoleon

shadow_magazine_vol_1_143So 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.