Readlist: Hear the Triumph Laugh of The Shadow

[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. 

shadow_magazine_vol_1_79So 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.) 

shadow_magazine_vol_1_82But 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. 

shadow_magazine_vol_1_84Speaking 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.

shadow_magazine_vol_1_89The 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.