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.

Rated: DAMNIT THULER YOU HAD ONE JOB. ONE JOB!

 

Go to Your Mama: Mothers in Science Fiction

b66d58748dcbc67d0cded34fcf3c5f4dTLDR: It’s Jessica. Jessica is the coolest. Also Zamm, Agent of Vega. The Ripley picture is because there are no satisfactory images of The Lady Jessica.

Moms get the short end of the stick in fiction. Most of them just flat-out get killed in childbirth. Others are unceremoniously forgotten in the hero’s quest to Find Out About My Father, because….

Even if they survive, mothers tend to ignored by characters and story alike because they try to keep their kids from going on adventures, aka safe. (This is probably because mothers invest a hell of a lot of resources into their children and tend to want to collect a return on their investments.) Even if they are strong* characters in their own right/focus stories, once children get involved they tend to get pushed out of focus and not have a lot of impact on the plot or the protagonist. See: Padme Amidala. See also: every mother of a Disney Princess, ever.

* Emotionally resilient, self-motivatated, and, if a main character, actively plot-relevant (this is less important if it’s a side character.) Another important trait is: how cool are they?

Anyhow, when moms are recognized, they’re usually only counted when they assume an action role in the story–AKA, Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. This is primarily because most people are fake nerds and heretics. It’s also because people like to focus on the fact that Ripley and Sarah Connor’s strength, in-universe, to survive and fight comes from the presence of a child to protect. It ignores the deeper reason that having an external motivation for their actions makes them more active and therefore more interesting characters.

Think about it. Ripley without Newt is a PTSD-riddled civilian tagging along on a military mission. She’s cannon fodder. She’s toast. Without Newt, Ripley doesn’t take as dominant a part in the decision-making and doesn’t survive because Burke forces the issue and everyone gets eaten. With Newt, Ripley has the additional motivation of another person to consider and protect. Ripley has a focus to control and override her impulses to freeze up. Ripley has a strong motivation to get everyone out of there and not stop until they are. Without John Connor, Sarah is the perky blonde who gets killed by the indomitable serial killer. With John Connor (and the fate of the human species, too) as her responsibility, Sarah has a serious motivation and more importantly, she has a reason for doing plot-relevant things. A hero or heroine who does plot-relevant things is a hero/ine doing interesting things.  And not, say, bumbling around an apartment building at night and getting stabbed to death by a bad guy. That is uninteresting.

bef1d0932ad9e3cb8abd91862f572714That all being said, it took me over a month to write this post because I couldn’t think of very many others. No, of course there’s Cordelia Vorkosigan. There’s Amanda Morgan. There’s Scaramouche‘s Comtesse de Ploughastel, but that’s not science fiction, even honorarily. There’s Eden Perdicaris from The Wind and the Lion, and that’s….well, hey, that’s alternate history! It totally counts! There’s…. uh…. Galadriel, whhhhattt, she’s Arwen’s grandma, come on! But most of these characters’ stories don’t focus on the maternal or nurturing relationship between them and their children. That actually seems to be quite rare.

Cordelia Vorkosigan, although an extraordinarily strong protagonist, is not a major character after Miles comes along; she is more prominently a counselor to characters not her own biological son. Moreover, after Cordelia hands over the protagonist mantle to her son, she’s a fairly passive as far as plot-relevance goes. This doesn’t make her a weaker character, just a sidelined one, given that Miles’ focus is on military and political victories, while his mother has a complete disdain for the military and a distinctly apolitical/anti-political stance towards politics of the Barrayaran style. On the other hand, Ekaterin Vorkosigan nee Vorsoisson has a kid, has a close relationship with him, and is an active presence in her opening storylines. So she counts, even if her kid gets promptly sidelined in later books. And as far as action goes, counter-hijacking the doomsday weapon from a group of terrorists and smashing it into the ground until the rubble bounces is a pretty badass start to an awesome career of….being a loyal housewife and Countess and mother to a parcel of other Vorkosiganlings. Pwah. I guess there’s also Alys Vorpatril, but she kind of sucks.

Amanda Morgan is a borderline example, as the majority of her story-time is focused on the ruthless, pragmatic necessities of defending a planet against armed invasion; she has no time or attention for even the birth of her own grandchild. There are, however, hints of the past: she thinks on and deeply regrets the necessity of the strained, strict relationship she had with her own long-dead son….a son who, the text implies, was an unrecognized psychopath only just held to the right side of the law by his controlling mother’s iron will. (Is a good story, everyone should read.)

Family relationships in Tolkien stories aren’t given a huge amount of weight, and those that are are mostly paternal-focused. (Unless your name is Luthien Tinuviel.) That being said, mothers whose presence has a great impact on their children would include Morwen, Idril, Aredhel. And Luthien’s mother, Melian. And Erendis of Numenor, ouch. And Indis, I guess. Actually, come to think of it, Tolkien does do this quite a bit in The Silmarillion, although the narrative conventions and epic scope of that book keeps these relationships out of close focus.

So anyway, finally to the most triumphant example of my thesis: the Lady Jessica, of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Jessica is THE FREAKING COOLEST character in all of science fiction, and this is an opinion I have held since I was thirteen years old. Jessica makes Paul into the hero he is: what she has taught him makes him capable, perceptive, and able to use his powers when he comes into them. Jessica is instrumental to the plot both actively during their escape via the Voice, their initial manipulation of Liet Kynes, and then through the Missionaria Protectiva itself.–to the Bene Gesserit, it is their sister and agent who is the valuable one, not some half-grown boy of dubious potential. And yet through it all, Jessica is still vulnerable and sympathetic and cool. She is admired and respected by other characters, or through her actions and presence instills that respect in them. Also, she gets the last word (literally.)

In the same mould as Jessica is Delamber from Jack Vance’s The Faceless Man. Delamber is a distinctly more limited character than Jessica, as she is an indentured sex slave in a harshly misogynistic setting. She can only give general guidance to her son–but her warmth and courage prepares him for his heroic path throughout the next two books. As for emotional resilience: Mur/Gastel Etzwane is not her only child, and she refuses to attempt escape with him partly because she wishes to remain behind to protect her daughter; she also faces the loss of rank from “sex slave” to “work slave” and the attempted bullying of the priest-caste men with disdainful equanimity. As for plot relevance, the first book revolves around hero’s efforts to redeem her contract and rescue her (a time-honored SF plot, let us not forget.) Habits learned in the process drive him to eventually take on the responsibilities of leadership and protection for his world. There was no third book, shut up.

With a slight pivot to the least triumphant example: Empress Anais of The Braided Path by Chris Wooding. While this works technically–Anais is a major figure in the plot, is hugely motivated by her daughter and desire to protect her (daughter has magic, girls are not allowed to have magic. Magical girls, in particular, are not allowed to become Empresses. Magical girls are supposed to end up dead)–a) Anais does not interact very much with her daughter, b) Anais ends up dead. Also, c) these books weren’t very good.

My last and other triumphant example is that of Zamm, Agent of Vega (from The Truth About Cushgar) by James H. Schmitz. Zamm is an inverted example: she’s a mother who has lost her family. Zamm subsumes her grief and is firmly controlled by her intelligence and iron will. She uses her pain and longing as a weapon, against others–the (ice-cold manipulative spymaster) Third Co-Ordinator describes her as his “grand champion killer”–and against herself. Throughout the story, Zamm drives herself to look for more clues in her own mind and memories, even when this process could kill her or drive her insane. As for plot relevance, Zamm’s vendetta results in the Confederation winning an entire war…by accident.

And don’t ever try to go up against her with a pirate ship or a gun in your hand.

Anyhow, that’s what I’ve got. Thoughts?

Book Review: The Untold Story by Genevieve Cogman

Well, as a dog returns to its vomit, so do I to this series. Thank God this seems to be the last one. I can’t think of another series written so poorly, by an author with such demonstrated and wasted potential, which I have wanted to like so badly. I mean, she was SO GOOD at writing Bleach fanfiction, surely that talent translates directly into the real world of real books with real covers9781984804815_p0_v1_s1200x630 and real sales, right?

Genevieve Cogman is not a good author of fantastic adventure. These books are ponderously slow, verbosely talky, amateurishly plotted, clunkily executed, and her characters have all the depth and warmth of ukiyo-e paintings, except without the craftsmanship or crisp elegance of design. And it’s really freaking depressing, because she had a bright, sciffian idea which would have made a really cool story if someone with actual abilities had written it, thought about it, and carried through with its possibilities.

That idea was this: incorporate fanfic versions of characters from other novels into this novel, using the justification that they are real people from other universes, recognizable because of their existence pan-dimensional Library. Think about it! Sherlock Holmes! Jareth from Labyrinth!….uh….some other characters from public domain literature! Like, like…uh….umm….the Disney Princesses!….I mean, not the Disney princess archetype, just a generic princess archetype that happens to not be under copyright. Um. How about a black guy being the police commissoner in pseudo-Victorian London?

At it’s core and base, this is supposed to be about book-stealing Librarian spy catburglars. Also secret identities, magical systems, and zeppelins. Also a horrifying and terrible villain driven mad by secrets from the depths of time and space and space-time and L-space. Also dragons. Where does it go wrong? And how can you possibly go wrong with dragons?

In so, so many different ways, but I’ll let my past reviews speak for themselves. This is the last book and the series plot, such as it is and believe me it is pretty damn weak, gets resolved.

So, anyhow, we eventually found out in The Dark Archive, that dread villain Alberich was Irene’s biological father. Or at least, his original body was. He’s an orb of chaos-infused energy bound to a moving corpse, now. Needless to say, this reveal was fucking obvious from BOOK ONE, but it still gets a full dramatic treatment in that book and into the next–this one.

Irene wants to do something about her father, preferably something that ends with his death. Also, worlds are disappearing. She has a series of conversations with people, and after about one third of the book has gone by, gets permission from the Library elders to covertly strike against Alberich. Also, worlds are disappearing. Another third of the book goes by, in which we learn that worlds have been disappearing, that Alberich is actually willing to talk terms with his daughter, and that The Library doesn’t want them to.

This is, we are led to suspect, because the Library doesn’t want people looking into the secrets of its founding. Also worlds are disappearing. How unfortunate, therefore, that during the past couple of books Irene has stumbled onto several stories concerning exactly that–stories of the founding of a mysterious library from both the Fae and Dragon point of view–and now, she finally finds out that there is also one from the human POV.

And it kind of matches what Alberich has been saying: that the Library is corrupted.

So a meeting is set up on a world that by no means has yet disappeared and absolutely has no reason to disappear and could not possibly be a trap by which inconvenient people who know too much are set up to disappear. Guess what happens then? No, go on, guess.

Anyhow, Alberich sacrifices what’s left of himself to break them free, and off they go again. Honestly, even with Alberich being as poorly-served as he has been throughout the series–and he was defeated by the heroine in every single book so far–he’s still kind of my favorite character from this series. I’ve always liked the villains who have, somewhere wayyyy far off in the distance, a noble cause or an ideal to aim at, but in the meanwhile don’t hesitate from saying, “let me be evil,” rolling up their sleeves, and getting to it. I also like family-as-villains (who doesn’t)–especially when they are willing to apply that selfsame philosophy to their family members, and willing to accept that turnabout is fair play. And, making your first appearance disguised in the skin of an enemy you have defeated and killed is kind of badass. Despite the fact that he was completely ineffective in each incarnation, Alberich himself is treated with enough dread and caution by the other characters that he still retains some inkling of menace–even when he’s just a walking burnt-out, dessicated corpse in a monk’s hood, which honestly takes some doing. Even the two-paragraph long summary of his fall to darkness and Irene’s mother’s escape, is more interesting and compelling than anything else in this entire damn book.

But anyway, with the series 95% done with and the person who has been the main villain of the series abruptly out of the way, we get introduced to the real evil behind the scenes. It’s as exactly as stupidly anticlimactic and frustrating as you might imagine. It’s defeated as easily as ever by Irene, and let me tell you how disappointed I was at that. I was even annoyed that Irene got a happy ending and her powers back.

How do you go wrong with such a provocative idea? Why bother to file the serial numbers off your Sherlock if you’re going to use him as a glorified doormat? Why pull Jareth off of dance-number duty without a long-standing sexual tension plot with the heroine (on the other hand, their relationship, such as it is, has the benefit of consistency.) Why make your dragons the epitome of stick-up-the-cloacaness and…actually, just why?

There are good aspects to this work. Beginning authors can read them and make careful notes about what not to do. (Hint: HAVING YOUR ADVENTURE FANTASY NOVEL BE ALMOST ENTIRELY DIALOGUE IS A BAD IDEA.) Struggling authors can find new strength in rage knowing that this garbage is getting edited and published instead of them. Readers can…read something else instead.

Rated: I really wanted to like these books! Goddamnit!

Readlist: The Shadow 1-3 – A Dark Legend Arises

So, somehow or other in 2017 I tried to read The Shadow pulp novels. Now, my initial criticisms are still valid: the books are very pulpy; the descriptions veer purple; the action is stodgy to today’s eye; and while Walter Gibson, alias Maxwell Grant, was still getting his feet under him, the result is highly uneven.

Still, there were elements and threads that stuck with me through each reading. The unforgettably atmospheric opening to the first novel and series as a whole, a hopeless man saved from destruction by what might as well be a mysterious force of nature itself and never mind that it turns out to be (sigh) Harry Vincent–the wicked creepy scene where Lamont Cranston talks to himself–the amusingly improbable setup of The Shadow’s personal radio broadcast station and ability to send stealthy messages by accenting certain words (it doesn’t help that a non-agent twigs to one message anyway)–the Shadow leaving the scene after surviving a ten-to-one battle, his form invisible, his presence shown only by splotches of blood–not to mention that the simple sheer charisma of the character itself.

In The Living Shadow, The Shadow himself is partly defined in this book by one of his major attributes in the series: his absolute mastery at the craft of disguise. He jumps from scene to scene, not to mention ethnicity to ethnicity, without incurring the slightest suspicion by other characters. That is, up until they end up on the wrong side of a minion dogpile while a dark figure exits, stage right, cackling sinisterly.

The other part, of course, is the fact that The Shadow is as new to the crooks of New York as he is to the reader, and boy do they get jumpy when they start to put two and two together and get  an unexplained black splotch on the floor as result. Half the fun of the first few / early books comes from watching the criminals get progressively more unnerved at perfectly ordinary GIANT SHADOWS STRETCHING LONG ARMS INTO THE ROOM AT NIGHT, and so forth.

Also, there’s Harry Vincent. Sigh. At least in the early books it’s understandable that a) he’s not very competent because he’s brand-new at this, b) The Shadow is hanging around near him to keep an eye on his newest agent’s progress and just incidentally rescue him repeatedly from danger that he walks blindly into. Like I said: the elements are all there, including competent and incompetent agents.

Speaking of competent agents, the proto-Rutledge Mann is Claude Fellows, also an insurance broker, also a social acquaintance of Lamont Cranston, rather more businesslike and distant. He doesn’t have any friendliness to the new agent; he’s taciturn and relays orders without comment or commendation. (Chubby Rutledge Mann is rather more sympathetic.) That’s cool and all, but I can’t shake the feeling that brand-new agents would be rather more effective aides to the cause if they were, y’know, actually trained and instructed on their duties rather than just dropped into the thick of things. Burbank also shows up; the dogged Joe Cardona is introduced; and Secret Service man Vic Marquette makes one of his ever-so-surprising appearances in the middle of nowhere, waving a badge and trying patiently to explain to some rather annoyed people that counterfeiting money isn’t allowed.

Re-reading these books–including the very first novel, The Living Shadow–it’s amazing how simultaneously full-on Shadowy and….not quite…they are at the same time. But by the second and third book–which I read back to back with book #78?, The Triple Trail, it’s clear that The Shadow himself sprang full-grown from Gibson’s brain; it just took a while for his author to catch up and craft a milieu to match.

Rated: still reading The Shadow send help

ReReview: The Shadow No.1 – The Living Shadow

So here’s a review I did originally way back in 2017ish, when I first encountered the master crimefighter himself…..and wandered away again. Another review will go up once I finish my re-read (which is going to to cover the first three novels, which strictly speaking are a trilogy and don’t stand very well on their own.)

The Shadow #1
Author: Walter Gibson

Wikipedia offers a publication date of 1931 and original title of “The Murder in the Next Room,” which might go a long way towards explaining why this story contains only incidental Shadowyness.

Our narrator is Harry Vincent, a despairing, penniless, washed up…something or other…who is saved from committing suicide by the Shadow, and indighted into service. He receives orders–in this book by telephone call–via the extremely foolproof method of the speaker’s accenting certain words more than others. Whatever, Harry is soon informed to WATCH – THE – MAN – IN – THE – NEXT – ROOM.

Harry is rather better at this than one might expect someone literally pulled off the street to be, and soon ascertains that the man in the next room is likewise being followed by someone else. He even manages to eavesdrop on on their meeting, that evening at the hotel, and is an earwitness to the ersatz-titular murder in the next room. So far, so good. Even better, he, and not the police or the murderer, finds what the murderer wanted: a golden coin with a strange, Chinese character on it.

Unfortunately, the story then takes a hard turn (to my opinion) for the boring with the introduction of the actual criminals: hard-boiled gangsters Steve Cronin, and his buddy Croaker. Out of respect to the author’s hard work, I will omit sarcasm quotes. Cronin is small fry and Croaker is even smaller; but Cronin has caught wind of a payoff of some sort being made to a Chinese kingpin, whose name I will hazard a guess is Woo Lung or something, on the east coast, by a Chinese kingpin, whose name is Soo Ling, or something, on the west coast. Or something. All that hardboiled dialogue made my eyes water a little. Meanwhile, they are being watched by a shadow.

Harry Vincent receives orders to report to a man named Fellows. Fellows is actually kind of an interesting character. He doesn’t know who the Shadow is, or what side he’s on, or what they’re ultimately doing, or what happens to the other agents–and he doesn’t care. It’s a job to him; he does it with some professional pride, but an utter lack of concern or curiosity. Now, this attitude is a) seen from Harry’s point of view, b) I think, changes some in the next book; but, after long exposure to the comicbooky heroes who fight alone, work alone, play alone, investigate criminal leads alone, and then complain about being alone and overworked, while the well-minioned villains are moving in…

The comparison is not very flattering to more recent works.

Moving on. The Shadow, via Harry, tries his hand at sending Harry in to Woo Lung’s place, carrying the coin-key. It doesn’t go well; but Harry is rescued from the time-release guillotine Woo Lung has in his basement (Big Trouble In Little China assures me they come standard), by….someone with small, slender hands. I’d make a joke about that, but this does seem to be a distinguishing mark to pulp heroes; the Scarlet Pimpernel has has very pale, feminine hands.

Anyhow, Harry Vincent is given new orders: to passively investigate the recent murder of a local millionaire, some distance away from the city. He is to loaf around in the character of an out of work author, observe, and report any findings to Fellows.

Harry observes someone in roughly the same position he is; someone who is lounging around, watching…and waiting. This guy’s name is Joyce; he’s contacted by Ezekiel Bingham, a lawyer who provided the critical witness testimony in the mystery of the murdered millionaire. Ezekiel needs a code broken, and Joyce is to do it for him.

At this point I totally lost interest and skipped to the end.

[editor’s note: wow, at least I was being honest.]

The prose is good; it’s simplistic and doesn’t actually approach purple, getting the job done without intruding.

The characterization is weak. The main character is boring to the point of being offensively so.

The action is scant, and I’m not sure whether to mark it down or not because I was skimming extremely hard at the point when I happened across the car chase that was the only example.

Final analysis: an interesting idea with a weak execution.

Rated: one bullet in a five-chambered revolver.

Masterminds! Mastercrooks! Master fighters! And….Harry Vincent?!

So, similar to the discovery that no matter how mundane the word it, becomes, well, supercharged by the addition of the word “super” as a prefix, the same principle applies to “master-” (although it can also be two separate words.) Master fiends! Master fighter! Master detective, master sleuth! It’s adorable. Deny that you weren’t smiling when you pictured that. It gets better still when the context plays it entirely straightforwardly, from the devilishness of the fiends to the smarminess of the crooks, to the competence (supercompetence?) of the shadowy sleuth in question. Gibson wrote these books sincerely, with a love of the process, the characters, the excitement, that still never loses its craft–and steadily improves on itself, book by book.

Sidenote: if it kind of strains credulity nowadays that one guy with basic forensic knowledge and observational skills can tower over the entire police force…well, that’s because the early police departments, including and especially the New York City department, resisted using said techniques mightily. The first few forensic/toxicology experts basically had to fund themselves and were ignored by the cops for as long as it was possible to do so. We could also talk about the loose treatment of due process, exclusionary rules, and fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine…but definitely not in conjunction with pulp detective fiction mystery stories.  

Anyhow, the first 10-25ish books were good, not great. There is really something special about these books and this character, and the strength of that was enough to carry the series through some patches that read very, very roughly to the modern eye. Gibson (aka, “Maxwell Grant”) tended to hew very closely to the very pure pulp formula that Edgar Rice Burroughs perfected–in other words, there always has to be a damsel in distress needing to be rescued, and where there is no one else available for the job, Harry Vincent will do (sigh.)

Especially in the earlier books, the writing on the action scenes was really bad. That’s not surprising–it’s tough to do action really well; and there’s also the cultural expect….why the hell can I not spell that word…TIMES HAVE CHANGED, BASICALLY.  Well, so did Gibson. By the time we’d hit around #50, he’d improved on his work. The fistfights are still clunky, but the gunplay descriptions had improved and he’d put his focus on that.

Another Sidenote: The Shadow couldn’t fit into our modern day world very well….but he could very easily slip into just a slightly stylized version of it. Such as, say, the John Wick universe–one where there are master crooks, classy and not-so-classy dames, gat-swinging gorillas, old-school femme fatales, and sharp dressed mobsmen.–and where everyone avoids using cell phones or computers and prefers face-to-face meetings, typewriters, and paper filing systems. Oh, and in which there is plenty of room for word of mouth to spread tales of legendary and scary figures in a defined underworld mileu. 

Books 50-75 (or thereabouts) get visibly better. Somewhere around the late #60s, Gibson finally figured out that The Shadow’s agents are going to have to convincingly pull their own weight in order for the audience, or The Shadow himself to take them seriously. Nowhere is this more evident than in Crooks Go Straight, wherein The Shadow himself gets taken unaware by the actual villain, falls down a two-story death pit trap into the coal cellar (all brownstones come with those, dont’cha know), rendering him unconscious. The villain ties him up “expertly,” adding wire ties to the rope ones for extra security, shoves him in a box, piles another box on top of that one, and then makes a phone call to his mob buddies before leaving the house, whistling. Only Harry Vincent remains active and free to save the day! And with past evidence against him, it looks like a really, reallyreally long shot for The Shadow. 

But save the day Harry does, and it’s an amazing turn-around for a guy who literally got bashed on the head and carried away like a sack of potatoes….multiple times. One of the tricks Gibson may have figured out is that having one agent = plot progress when that agent screws up; two agents = plot progress as they talk to and play off each other, even if one of them does screw up and lose a tail in the process. So, besides the bump in quality of the writing, The Shadow’s agent’s being suddenly about 90% more competent than before plays a big part in my enjoyment of the books.

Gibson also remains a master plotter, both in the style of assembly and pacing, but in retaining creativity, suspense, and originality even after familiarity with the last 75 of these books should have made me wise to his formula. Gibson doesn’t stick to one single formula or plot; he cycles through maybe a dozen plot-slash-genre types, and once he’s settled on one, he deliberately tries to write it contrary to your expectations. For example, Murder Marsh features an old Gothic mansion, a tyrannical patriarch-slash-mad-scientist complete with beautiful daughter, a wild man of the carrying-fainted-maidens off over his shoulder type, and more. (Including Harry Vincent. Sigh.) But then, while the Gothic mansion turns into not an ornate death trap and people the mad scientist has a reason to dislike, vanish mysteriously, it turns out that said mad scientist is mostly only mildly obsessed; the love interest turns out to not be all he seems; and the wild man who kidnaps the unconscious damsel (who, we might point out, is the only one to raise the alarm on intruders in the house and the penultimate time, heads out with her .22 automatic and gets the drop on them) is actually the real heir of the gloomy old house on the marsh. There are also more red herrings than you’d normally expect to find in a barrel marked “DYED FISH,” but such is the price of originality.

Mind you, the downside to relentless red-herring/subverting the audience is that the climax of some books is filled with multiple characters and/or The Shadow carefully explaining what actually happened and who dun it or why not, but again, when it works, it works.

Anyhow, I’m out of time.

Rated: If the weed of crime bears bitter fruit, does the poisonous tree not apply to those who sowed it? 

Readlist: Supercrooks! Superfiends! Supersleuths! And also Harry Vincent (sigh)

shadow_magazine_vol_1_57So, I’m at #68 I think? These have covered the gamut from The Crime Circus to Gypsy Vengeance, The Garaucan Swindle and Murder Marsh. One of the things that keeps these stories fresh is that there’s a huge range in genre: Murder Marsh and others before it have a gothic melodrama tone (frequently livened up by the entrance, stage left, of leering gunmen) and modulated by the presence of a mad (or at least, extremely permanently peeved) scientist. Gypsy Vengeance features actually precious little vengeance but long-lost aristocrats reclaiming their property and the ever-favorite, jewelry. And The Garaucan Swindle covers malfeasance by big banking corporations working in conjunction with corrupt South American regimes. Not to mention the ever-present gangsters. 

Now, this isn’t to say that every single story is a 10. While all of them have been superbly readable, I couldn’t off the top of my head tell you what exactly Charg, Monster was about; and it took some thinking to recall that The Cobra wasn’t actually about some aspiring fakir with a literal cobra. (It’s about another guy who appears to be following The Shadow’s vigilante footsteps, but more vigorously, and our not-yet-clued-in Police Commissioner Weston thoroughly approves.) But the ones that do stand out, stand out like a mysterious blackened spot on the sidewalk of a darkened alley that ends in a perfect silhouette. 

I mean, what else can you say about books like The Crime Circus, in which The Shadow alias The Great Zoda performs a mind-reading act, Cliff Marsland becomes a carny, Vic what’s-his-name of the Secret Service is lurking as the Wild Man from Borneo, the high-wire girl being a long-lost secret heiress is mentioned as an easily-forgotten aside? (and while the bit about the reward for capture does get woven back into the plot, frankly the girl herself only exists as a character in order for the villains to have someone to kidnap at the end of Act 3.) It’s marvelous. There’s also a bit where The lurking Shadow decides to hide inside a tiger cage while pursuit goes past. WHILE THE TIGER IS STILL IN IT. FOR NO REASON OTHER THAN THAT HE WANTS TO GO HANG OUT IN A TIGER CAGE, APPARENTLY! 

Then there are just the moments that are pure bravura flourishes, as when in The Blue Sphinx, Cliff Marsland (having escaped the Iron Maiden which was prominently featured as a red herring) is about to get guillotined as due reward for being a sneak and a snitch. Of course a rescue is forthcoming, but while The Shadow is needed to cover the doorway, Clyde Burke has the honors. Clyde, having been held prisoner until just recently, is unarmed, so The Shadow snatches a poignard off a display table and throws it across the room into the wooden frame of the guillotine for Burke to use. How freaking cool is this guy? That’s how cool!

Admitedly there are books that are somewhat uneven, such as The Spoils of The Shadow, wherein we have a very strong antagonist and a compelling plot: Mark Tyrell, who has a plan to steal a million in jewels, and who decides to prefix his reign of knavery by meeting The Shadow face to…well, prosthesis…either to cut a deal or warn him off. Frankly, this is one of the best moments for The Shadow, as he spots an obvious trap, deploys his own agents and deftly disables the trap before even setting foot into the room with Tyrell, proceeds to scare Tyrell not completely stiff but almost witless, and then exits despite the strong objections of at least one gangster in the antechamber with a .45. The rest of the book keeps up this pace and tension, as Tyrell inexplicably manages to pull off the very thefts he boasted of, in the presence of New York’s elite and also of the keenly alert yet weirdly lackadaisical Lamont Cranston. Now, I consider the 10th-hour plot twist to be something of a cheat, and I’m always going to roll my eyes at elaborate booby traps, but the rest of the book was just magnificent. 

Why don’t we have intelligent heroes any more? (Please ignore Harry Vincent in the corner, it’s his job to get whacked on the head. We keep him around so that we don’t get brain damaged ourselves.) 

Anyhow, on a similar note, the status quo of New York City and our cast of superstalwarts actually doesn’t remain completely fixed. The Garaucan Swindle sees Commissioner Weston depart for South America in order to heroically….establish a police state in conjunction with a general who has executed a military coup and overthrown the civilian government….?

….point is, his replacement, Commissioner Barth, is incompetent enough that the audience is pretty certain to welcome Weston back with open arms.

The Shadow also finds need to expand his organization. Now, part of this is due to the unalloyed incompetence of Harry Vincent, but Cliff Marsland is honestly nearing the end of his useful lifespan as a lone wolf gun for hire of fame and repute whose companions and bosses keep inexplicably dying off in gun battles with The Shadow whilst he, Cliff, survives. And when the active part of your organization consists of (sigh) Harry Vincent and Cliff, you obviously need help.

So The Chinese Disks sees the activation of a handful of other agents: Hawkeye the spotter, Pietro the fruitcart man, Moe the taxicab man, and Jericho Druke, the big black guy. Additionally, there’s the trustworthy doctor, Dr. Rupert Sayre, who proves his usefulness and ability to hold his tongue several times when The Shadow has been less lucky or strangely incautious or simply ended up facing greater odds than he knew (those are, barring voice-activated murder robots) basically the only ways he gets hurt.) With the exception of Hawkeye, these men have something in common: their lives have been saved by The Shadow–and he is a man who can and will call in these debts for repayment. 

(Hawkeye is actually a reformed crook who associates with Slade Farrow, a sociologist who has the knack for setting crooks straight. He also gets called on by The Shadow periodically, but for less dangerous jobs than Marsland.)

Meanwhile (sigh) there’s Harry Vincent. At this point I just feel sorry for the guy. It’s not so much that he’s merely incompetent–it’s that whenever he appears, even as a point of view character, he never has any impact on the plot except negatively. Even when he’s been restored as the narrator of Murder on the Hill, the only thing he manages to do is a) drop his gun, which someone else picks up and uses to wing The Shadow, b) get knocked out and carried off [yes, we said carried off, the guy actually has to put him down and take a couple of breathers] by a third party who has done all the necessary detective work to figure out who the actual bad guy is and then explains it to Harry. Mind you, it was still a good book, in part due to said third party, a railroad detective of unclear intentions and dubious credentials, who keeps squabbling with the guy who runs the telegraph at the station–motivations also, it transpires, unknown. Gibson’s ability to write vivid one-off characters is another thing that keeps these stories fresh.

Anyhow, they’re really really, good is what I’m saying.

Rated: HAHAHAHAHAHAaaaaaa

The Shadow Knows Readlist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Readlist: Who knows….

solomon-kane-2009-movie-posterSo because I recently rediscovered the joys of kitschy space-western anime, I haven’t been watching any. Instead, courtesy of youtuber Raz0rFist’s The Shadowcast podcast, I’ve been reading:

– Walter B. Gibson / Maxwell Grant – The Shadow 007 – The Silent Seven

– The Shadow 008 – The Black Master

– The Shadow 009 – Mobsmen on the Spot

– Jane Austen – Lady Susan

I also attempted watching the 2009 Solomon Kane movie, but my thoughts on the first (sigh) ten minutes are, summed verbatim:

This movie stupid, yo.

TLDR: Just because a couple of youtube yahoos liked it, doesn’t mean it’s actually good.

– Hey, remember when they would actually film things on outdoor sets with extras dressed in costumes, instead of everything being just computer generated? Good times, good times….
– Interestingly nasty moment where Solomon (that is James Purefoy under there, yes?) toys with a guy before stabbing him in the throat, but hey it looked cool.
– Oh, I wonder if those ominous open-mouthed portal things that all the expendable extras just walked directly up to have any kind of ominous significance.
– Oh, wow, you’re not even trying to make it subtle, movie.
– Solomon Kane would NEVER say “I am the only devil here.” That’s something the villain would say. At the OUTERMOST OUTSIDE chance, you could have a young wastrel of a pre-avenging Puritan SK in the ragged band, but no. Failure to fundamentally understand your character.
– Ding! Hero turns the tables, easily, after the twelfth–not the eleventh–hour. After the ladder has already passed equilibrium, after the bombs have exploded, after the villain has actually, by fair and obvious evidence, WON. The heroes can only succeed by having the narrative cheat in their favor. Heroes do not win by their own effort, their own skill, or strength. Heroes suck, heroism doesn’t exist, fuck you for trying. Fuck you right back, Hollywood. This is why I don’t buy movies, and this is why I watch 1970s anime instead of your 2021 big budget flops.
– Subtlety? What’s subtlety?
– Okay, what the hell. Why is Solomon Kane, PURITAN AVENGER, doing in a CATHOLIC MONASTERY. Movie, I wanted to like you.
– WHAT’S SUBTLETY, PRECIOUS? WHAT’S SUBTLETY, EHHH?