John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #71
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"Spoils of the Shadow" was originally published in the September 1, 1934 issue of The Shadow Magazine. A wave of crime has struck Manhattan, and the crook has challenged the master of darkness: Don't interfere or death will rain down upon innocent victims. The Shadow must accept the foul dare or accept defeat.
Here we have another terrific Shadow mystery adventure. It's pulp novels like these that make The Shadow such a beloved pulp character. This story showcases everything fans have come to love about the pulp thrillers. You have a criminal mastermind with powerful lieutenants who seems to have an unbeatable plan. There's our heroic protagonist of nearly superhuman abilities battling against prodigious odds against an impossible situation. There are death traps from which no one could seemingly escape. There are strange crimes with no possible explanation. Action... suspense... thrills... all make this story the kind of mystery for which readers clamored.
It begins on board a train. Riding the rails across Virginia, The Shadow spies a suspicious signboard at it flies past. It contains a hidden message that only The Shadow would notice. That communique leads him to a seemingly innocent magazine advertisement which contains another secret message which is directed only to The Shadow. He doesn't know who has placed the ad; the identity of the person seeking to contact The Shadow remains a mystery. But he decides to go to the address in the secret message and meet the unknown personage who seeks a meeting with The Shadow.
When he arrives at the Washington hotel mentioned in the message, he meets a suave man of shrewd appearance named Mark Tyrell. Tyrell is a business promoter and a man of social prominence. The Shadow stands there cloaked in black as Tyrell tells him that he -- Tyrell -- is honest... for now. But he plans on turning to crime, and warns The Shadow not to interfere. "I have planned five robberies. In each case I intend, with proper aid, to purloin a single object of high value." His plans are made, and if The Shadow interferes, innocent people will die. There's nothing The Shadow can do to prevent it. He must either let Tyrell commit his astounding crimes unmolested, or be responsible for the death of innocent bystanders.
All this makes for an interesting premise. What is The Shadow to do? One by one, crimes are committed. The Shadow is present at each of the social events where the impossible crimes take place. He appears to do nothing. Is there something up his sleeve? Is he taking secret action? Or is he abiding by the terms that Tyrell originally gave? Believe me, this story will have you guessing.
The crimes themselves are most original and clever. First an ancient and valuable fourteenth-century, Sicilian tapestry disappears from the home of Sebastian Dutton. How it is accomplished is most ingenious. The Shadow is present at the party at Dutton's home, yet seems powerless to prevent the robbery. The second crime involves rare Chinese screens from the Forbidden Palace in Pekin worth a hundred thousand dollars. The golden screens are stolen out from under the watchful eyes of old Rudolph Brockthorpe. Again, The Shadow is present at the robbery but does nothing to stop it. Millionaire collector Ferrell Gault's gem-encrusted gold Buddha is next. And again, The Shadow is present when it disappears. What will be next? And what will The Shadow do about it? Ya just gotta read this one!
The only loose thread, by story's end, was how Tyrell got his secret message into that billboard and magazine ad that first brought The Shadow into the mystery. Does he work for the ad agency? Does he know someone there? Does he own it? The advertisements appear, but we never really find out how that was arranged. It's a minor technicality, but a slightly annoying one.
It was in the early Shadow novels, like this one, that readers often got to see The Shadow use his amazing abilities at disguise. As the years passed, those masterful abilities were on display less and less. And upon the rare occasion that The Shadow used a disguise, he just appeared in disguise... the reader never got to see him apply it. It was only in the stories from the early years that readers enjoyed seeing The Shadow's long, tapering fingers press against his face and mold his plastic countenance into an exact duplicate of someone else. In this story, he takes the guise of Mark Tyrell so convincingly that even Tyrell himself is amazed. And he does it twice! Most impressive.
It's interesting to note that Mark Tyrell identifies that Lamont Cranston is actually The Shadow in disguise. It's all in the eyes. He recognizes the eyes that burn from Cranston's countenance as being that of The Shadow. An astute reader would immediately realize that such information spells the doom of Mark Tyrell. By the final page in the story, Tyrell must die, in order to preserve the closely held secret that The Shadow often borrows Cranston's identity. No crook ever survived the ending of a pulp magazine story with that knowledge. And sure enough, he bites the dust and takes that secret to the grave.
When it comes to political correctness, this story wins no awards by today's standards. Of course, back in 1934 standard were different. But I imagine that even then some readers cringed at the description of Foon Koo, Mark Tyrell's dwarfish, spider-legged Chinese lieutenant; he of the yellow face and beady eyes. And his pidgin English didn't help matters any. He relished his evil work, explaining, ""Foon Koo ready. He likee jobee. You watchee him do it." Yellow peril stories were still popular at the time of this story, if you couldn't tell.
Foon Koo was in charge of the bizarre death traps hidden all through the headquarters of Mark Tyrell. Traps doors, chutes that send a person sliding to a death room in the cellar. The old house is riddled with them. And it's wonderful to watch The Shadow skillfully avoid each one. All until the last one, when he is caught and sent to what would seem to be a certain doom. How he escapes ghastly death makes for thrilling reading you won't want to miss.
Most of the old gang of familiar characters is in this story. Cliff Marsland scouts the criminal underworld. There's no sign of his pal Hawkeye, but then Hawkeye had only appeared on one Shadow story by the time of this one, and wouldn't become a series regular for another few months. Harry Vincent is here; we learn he prefers to shoot a .45 caliber automatic, much like his master, The Shadow. Clyde Burke, police reporter for the New York Classic, also shows up. So do Stanley and Richards, the chauffeur and butler of Lamont Cranston, who have no idea they serve an impostor, not the real Cranston. And Doctor Rupert Sayre, personal physician to The Shadow, appears when The Shadow gets a .38 bullet in the left shoulder. And let's not forget Burbank, contact man for The Shadow, who is also commended as being a wireless expert here.
As for the police, Detective Joe Cardona is a major player in the story. His boss, Police Commissioner Ralph Weston, however, only shows up in the final act for a brief appearance.
The Shadow appears here in his garb of black, in his favorite disguise as Lamont Cranston, and in disguise as Mark Tyrell. No sign of any other disguises, however.
It's rare in a Shadow story that The Shadow offers a criminal a chance to escape, scott free. In only a few does the crook accept and agree to change his ways. In those cases, when the lawbreaker reforms, and it's usually a small-time crook not a criminal genius, The Shadow would let him go, unscathed as long as he stuck to the straight and narrow. In this story, The Shadow offers Mark Tyrell such an chance. "Honest opportunity lies before you. Why not take it? The past will be forgotten." And Tyrell accepts! But he isn't sincere, and we know what his fate will be at story's end.
The purplish liquid gets used in this story. But it's The Shadow disguised as Lamont Cranston who pulls the tiny vial from a vest pocket, rather than The Shadow removing it from beneath his cloak. He dilutes the fluid in a glass of water and gives it to revive an overcome woman. That strange concoction was fairly popular in the Shadow stories of the early 1930s, but seemed to quickly wane in popularity. Perhaps it had to do with the general crackdown on patent medicines of the time.
Another brief note of interest is the appearance of The Shadow's suction cups. They appear in this story, as he attaches them to his hands and feet and climbs up a sheer wall. I always love it when those suction cups appear. They're so cool! They also were more popular in the early years, as with the purplish liquid, but they continued to be used by The Shadow well into the 1940s.
As you read it, you will notice a reference to a cigarette as a "fag." For some unknown reason, Gibson only used this term for cigarette in this story and two months later in "The Chinese Disks." The slang is something I've come to expect in stories published in England; it was apparently common usage there. But its rare to see the slang in American published works. And the character who uses the term in this story isn't English, so that possibility is eliminated. Just a note of interest. Ah, how the language changes...
Reading this story was a real treat for me. Plenty to keep me flipping those pages. I know you'll enjoy this great early Shadow pulp mystery. I did.
"House Of Silence" was originally published in the July 15, 1937 issue of The Shadow Magazine. An odd house set on the outskirts of a sleepy Southern town. And inside that silent abode three innocent victims were being held prisoner, guarded by sinister death traps. Only The Shadow can rescue them from the House of Silence.
This is one of my favorite stories from 1937. And that's saying a lot, considering 1937 also gave us "Foxhound," "Quetzal," "The Shadow's Rival," "The Shadow Unmasks," "The Radium Murders" and "Teeth of the Dragon." Yes, 1937 was a banner year for The Shadow. And this story shines as brightly as the rest.
This story sat on the shelf at Street & Smith for nearly two years before it was published. Author Walter Gibson submitted it to the magazine in September of 1935, but it wasn't published until July of 1937. I'm not sure of the reason for the delay, it surely wasn't a sub-standard story. Apparently Gibson was churning out Shadow novels quite rapidly, in those days, and I would imagine that the publishers had acquired a backlog of Shadow stories. So they could pick and choose, and for some reason they delayed publication of this terrific story.
The entire story takes place in an unspecified Southern state. As our tale begins, we find young Jack Hallison returning to his hometown of Aurora. On the outskirts of this small, sleepy town sits an old mansion among the magnolia trees. It is in this house that he grew up, and he's curious to know who lives there now.
Jack Hallison inquires about the family at the decrepit service station across the street. He's told that it's a strange reclusive family of five. Old Peter Langrew owns the house, now. Living with him are his half-sister Theodora, young Beth Kindell, a distant relative, Gilbert Eldron, another relative, and Beale, the stooped old servant. Old Peter Langrew will allow no one to enter the house. Tradesmen leave bundles of food and supplies at the back door. But even more ominous is the fact that Peter Langrew will allow no one to leave. No one enters or leaves this dark old house.
Jack Hallison, being a curious young man, decides to look over the old house in which he was reared. An open back gate lures him inside the grounds. He finds the back door open, which proves to be too much of a temptation. But when he enters, he finds himself trapped. The back door slams shut, leaving him locked in a short hallway. A trapdoor in the floor drops open, and Jack falls to a concrete floor eight feet below. The trapdoor closes, and metal walls begin to slowly move inward. Only a dozen minutes until he is crushed inside this insidious death trap.
The Shadow, who is in the small town of Aurora, is totally unaware of the dire predicament of Jack Hallison in the basement of the silent house on the edge of town. The Shadow is in Aurora investigating a series of recent bank robberies and killings. Within the past five days, two banks had been robbed less than thirty miles from Aurora. A watchman had been killed, as had a State policeman later. And that's what has brought The Shadow to Aurora, not the house of silence.
The Shadow is staying at the Aurora Hotel in the guise of Henry Arnaud. The oft-used Lamont Cranston disguise wouldn't fit in well, here, so The Shadow uses his businessman disguise. But the way Arnaud is described, he could be a dead ringer for Lamont Cranston. He's a tall man. His countenance is masklike and hawkish. It makes me wonder what would happen if someone knowing Cranston ran into Henry Arnaud. Would there be any flash of recognition?
The Shadow soon discovers a connection between the ominous old house and the bank robberies. The gang of bank robbers are tipped off to which town to hit next by a series of colored flares, set off by the bigshot. And those flares are being shot from the roof of the house of silence. It would seem that the mastermind behind the bank robberies is living inside the old house.
So, what of young Jack Hallison, trapped with only seconds to live? Well, he's rescued by Gilbert Eldron, one of the relatives trapped inside the strange house. Jack is saved, but now he's a prisoner inside the house, as well! It will take all the might of The Shadow to rescue the innocent prisoners inside the dark old house. And to defeat the mob of bank robbers. And unmask the crime boss living in the old house. And so he does, in this thrilling pulp mystery.
The Shadow doesn't work alone, down here in the South. Harry Vincent is along, and keeps watch on several suspects. Cliff Marsland keeps watch for bank robbers at the nearby town of Brookdale, and Clyde Burke is stationed at another town called Northbridge. And they're all pulled together at the rousing climax of the story. Investment broker and contact man Rutledge Mann is mentioned, but doesn't actually appear. The sole representative of law and order is FBI agent Vic Marquette, who appears whenever crime takes on inter-state proportions.
The only disguise used in this mystery is The Shadow's guise as businessman Henry Arnaud. Harry Vincent appears under an assumed name, but that doesn't count as a disguise since his features are unaltered.
So what's with the colored flares? Mr. Big uses them to signal to his bank mob, indicating when and where to strike. But really, could he be more obvious? I would think something a little more subtle like a phone call or a letter would be preferred. Early in the story, a State policeman is killed because he sees the colored flare. So, I wonder... what about all the other people in the area who also saw the flare? Why weren't they of concern?
It seems that the idea of colored flares is a rather flamboyant one, but also is one that's grossly inefficient. Even at the story's end when we discover the identity of the master criminal and all is being explained, it seems that there would have been much simpler and more secure means of communicating between the big boss and his thugs. But as so often the case in the pulp stories, you just have to suspend your sense of disbelief and enjoy the roller coaster ride.
Ignore the logical inconsistency of the communication by flare, and you have a pretty thrilling story. There's more than one death trap inside the house of silence. Not only is there is basement room with the closing metal walls, but there's also a trap in the tower stairwell, which will crush a man. But as The Shadow stealthily enters the sinister house, he also avoids the death traps with his cunning.
The story also has a minor subplot involving a little romance. There are two virile bachelors in the house with a beautiful young woman. Since Beth Kindell is only distantly related to one of them, and is a total stranger to the other, there's plenty of room for love to bloom.
Beth Kindell meets The Shadow during his nocturnal visits to the old house. She recognizes him as a friend. "Her first fright ended, she acted as obediently as if under a hypnotic spell." Walter Gibson is careful to never claim that The Shadow possesses the power of hypnosis. Beth isn't under a hypnotic spell; she only acts "as if" she's under hypnosis. Even in these early years, Gibson was careful to tread a fine line and never give The Shadow actual mystic powers. Those were reserved for the slightly different characterization that would appear on radio.
A point of interest is the use of "bad" girls in this story. Usually, Walter Gibson avoided using women who were associated with the other side of the law. Women were usually innocent in his stories. Rarely, he would introduce a minor female character lawbreaker. And this is one of those rare tales. There are three molls that hang out with the bank robbery gang. They are only mentioned a few times; Daisy is the only one mentioned by name. In the end, we are told that the three molls were trapped by the police in the hide-out. They don't really do much in the story, but their mere presence is noteworthy, considering Gibson's propensity for avoiding them.
We get to see The Shadow's famous girasol ring, here. He shows it to Beth and instructs her to trust anyone wearing it. We also see The Shadow's special blue ink that fades away after being exposed to the open air. He uses it to send a coded message to Harry Vincent. And it's mentioned that The Shadow knows jujutsu, although he doesn't actually get to use it, here.
Oh yes, and The Shadow carries a pocket watch with a luminous dial. All the better to tell the time in The Shadow's usual environment, total darkness. The watch has been mentioned in a few other stories, but it was never made clear whether the watch was a pocket watch or a wrist watch. Now we know.
There's a terrific gun battle at our story's end. As usual, the chief baddie gets wounded by The Shadow, and is then cut down in a withering hail of bullets from the surviving good guys. So technically, The Shadow doesn't kill the master criminal. It seems he reserves the outright killing for the lowly thugs and hoodlums that surround their boss.
I liked the oppressive moodiness of this story. It really made an exciting story as The Shadow penetrated into the forboding atmosphere of the house of silence. I'll forgive the strange use of colored flares to signal the bank robbers, and concentrate on the other wonderful pulpy qualities of this story. If you get a chance to read this story, I think you'll agree that it's definitely a worthwhile read.
John Olsen was first introduced to The Shadow in the early 1960's, tuning in to rebroadcasts of his adventures on KEX radio in Portland, Oregon. Several years later, John was drawn to a hardback book entitled "The Weird Adventures of The Shadow," containing three Shadow novels reprinted from the old pulp magazines. The pulp Shadow was a far different character from the beloved radio version, but the stories drew him in and opened his eyes to a richer version of the hero. Today, John is retired in Sherwood, Oregon. He has read all 325 of the old Shadow pulp mysteries and enjoys them so much that, as of this writing, he is well over half way through reading them all again for a second time.