So, Silver Skull is the 165th The Shadow Magazine story, published January of 1939. Rather odd that the cover artist didn’t go with the scene where The Shadow confronts a ghastly talking silver skull in a gaseous death pit trap. The novel does, however, prominently figure The Shadow in all three of his most-used personalities: the leisurely and laconic Lamont Cranston, globe-trotting millionaire (who also invests heavily in the tech sector and flies planes); stoic and sober Kent Allard, the celebrated aviator; and The Shadow (who flies an autogiro and is heavily interested in crime.)
Planes, as you may infer, are heavily used in the fairly basic plot, which involves a set of rich men, who have recently made wealth transfers of some sort, and then embarked on long-distance flights which promptly crash. Man, you can talk smack about the FAA regulating our flying cars out of existence but maybe it has a point….
Anyhow, The Shadow investigates, both in his own identity as celebrated aviator, Kent Allard (who, we are reminded, survived a crash landing in the Guatemalan jungle and became the white god of a primitive tribe….a detail that frankly never grows old. Man, I love old pulps and their complete determination to make their protagonists awesome by whatever means necessary) and Lamont Cranston. Both have legitimate reasons for their interest; Allard in particular is appealed to by the niece of one such victim, Mildred Wilbin. Despite having the sense to call for help in investigating, and, of freaking course despite the protective overwatch of one Harry Vincent (Most Competent Agent of The Shadow, TM), Mildred promptly also gets kidnapped while playing amateur detective. We are introduced to our villain (Silver Skull), and to a couple of quite bright and therefore not-entirely loyal minions, the crooked Dr. Sleed and his squeeze / nurse, Thelma.
Sleed and Thelma actually give The Shadow a run for his money in this book more than anyone else, leaving him in a room filled with poison gas, or drugging him after he crawls, concussed and battered out of the aforementioned death trap pit–and, correctly assuming that they are slated to be disposed of by Silver Skull for knowing too much, arrange for him (in the guise of Lamont Cranston, who overplayed his hand) to take a one-way ride instead. Later on, of course, the tables turn and they–but, well, let’s not spoil it all completely here.
Burbank gets a great moment, albeit in his own low-key way, insisting the delirious Shadow give him his location and dispatching agents to get him to an actual doctor. Gibson gets the urgency of the situation across with remarkably few words; and shows how valuable an operative Burbank is by the simple, swift, and competent way he handles it. Take notes, Vincent.
But anyhow, there’s yet another beautiful, game, and gutsy damsel: Geraldine Murton, stewardess of the plane that supposedly crashed with Cranston aboard it. Geraldine is quite taken with Cranston and then also with Allard after meeting him, although she can’t really make her mind up who she prefers. It appears to be mutual, too, because The Shadow takes her along, suitably armed, on the search for Silver Skull’s western base.
So, I’ve gone on at length about the fact that pulp damsels in distress generally are solid characters in their own right who only lack the opportunity to get themselves out of distress and cut loose. This book is a perfect example. At one point, Mildred keeps a set of crooks covered–guarding The Shadow’s back as he takes on a horde of minions–and does so with, well, about as much success as Cliff Marsland would and definitely more than Harry Vincent. She does falter after actually shooting–killing–a man, but that’s only to be expected, and come the second time around, doesn’t so much as hesitate. Geraldine and her automatic provide a crucial aid to The Shadow in the climactic fight and wow what a perfect setup and payoff it was, too.
Anyhow, I really liked this one, and my only complaint is that it was maybe a chapter or two too short. I would have liked to see Miles Crofton, or even more of Burbank. (Also, this is the second time, after Quetzal, that The Shadow has survived a plane crash, not to mention that the real Lamont Cranston has also lived through one with minor injuries, per The Shadow Unmasks. Live adventurous lives, I suppose…) Although the pacing carries the plot nicely, it’s still a bit thin on the finer details and the reveal is rather obvious once we know that the crashed planes are actually being shot down by a fast fighter plane. Gibson is usually too good to let rather simple reveals stand by themselves without a further twist or elaboration, but the overall strength of the writing carries it through anyhow.
Also the aerial dogfighting. Did we mention that?
Rated: Dat last fade to black, tho, yooooo.