John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #78
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
“The Circle of Death” was originally published in the March 1, 1934 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Inside an area around Times Square lies a region controlled by a hidden criminal mastermind. Anyone entering that sector can be targeted for death. Strange, mysterious and undetectable death. Can even The Shadow survive the circle of death?
This is another one of those great early Shadow stories that fans love to read. And this one has a unique perspective. For most of the story, The Shadow must try to solve the mystery of the circle of death without any actual interaction with the criminal element that infests that quarter of Manhattan. It’s only at the story’s end, when The Shadow has solved the uncanny method of the murders, that he actually mixes in with the thugs themselves. Only then does he pull out his thundering .45 automatics and wither their ranks. Until then, it’s a nearly bloodless story.
The whole story revolved around the Electro Oceanic Corporation. This new company is located at South Shoreview, Virginia. It is developing a new wave motor, which will turn the power of the ocean waves into electrical energy. Unfortunately, tests show the invention to be too inefficient to be viable as a commercial enterprise. So investors in the device are dropping out. A few investors, however, believe in the promise of power generated by ocean waves, and want to invest more money. And it’s those investors who begin to fall victim to the sinister criminal mastermind who controls the circle of death.
First to die was Dustin Cruett. He was an investigator sent to South Shoreview to look into the affairs of the Electro Oceanic plant. He discovered that there was an amazing potential for profit, there. The company was poised on the brink of profitability. And it would be tremendous profitability. Someone would make millions overnight, when the latest wave motor design was unveiled. But the hidden master criminal didn’t want that information to be publicized. So Dustin Cruett had to die.
Dustin Cruett was on his way to report his findings to Maurice Bewkel, an investor who had sunk fifty thousand dollars into the venture, and was considering investing another couple hundred thousand. He walked into the area around Times Square which was controlled by some unknown criminal chieftain. A doctored packet of matches was slipped surreptitiously into his pocket. And when he went to light a cigarette, the peculiar fumes entered his nostrils and did their fatal duty. Dustin Cruett dropped dead before he could exit the circle of death.
How was this accomplished? The area around Times Square was filled with agents of the superfiend behind the diabolical scheme. Each had an innocent reason for being there. One might be a doorman. Another might be demonstrating a new beverage. Another might be a construction worker. Another might wear a sandwich board sign. Perhaps one was a cashier. But whatever their cover reason for being there was, their actual purpose was to carry out the wished of some unknown genius of crime. Each could deal stealthy, invisible death in any of a hundred different ways.
This army of deadly agents was contacted and given orders in a most peculiar manner. An electric sign board sitting squarely in the middle of Times Square flashed its lights innocently. But hidden in its borders were secret instructions to the men who controlled the circle of death. The message in the center of the sign was what most people noticed, and the public at large, it was completely normal and innocent. But the corners and borders of the sign could flash different designs in different colors. And those strange lights carried hidden meaning to the agents of the superfiend who controlled the circle of death. It was the most perfect death trap in all the world - a zone which looked innocent because it teemed with the throngs of passing thousands - the last spot where any one could suspect or discover lurking death.
One by one, the few investors who believed in the success of the wave motors being developed by he Electro Oceanic company were being killed. Each in a different way; each inside that expanse around Times Square. Who is it that wishes the deaths of investors, so that he can reap the tremendous profits associated with the impending success of the wave motors? How can The Shadow unmask him? And how can The Shadow reach him, in his lair hidden deep within the circle of death? To do so, The Shadow must himself enter the circle of death and confront the denizens of the circular district where death lurked every dozen feet.
It’s not until the exhilarating climax to the story when the .45 automatics come out, and the blood flows! There’s a rousing finish where The Shadow stalks though the Circle of Death, dealing death left and right as the minions of crime attempt to stop him. But he will not be stopped, for he is the nemesis of crime, The Shadow!
The Shadow appears in this story without disguise, in many scenes. When he appears in public during the daylight hours, he assumes the guise of businessman Henry Arnaud. It’s in that guise that he innocently penetrates the borders of the circle of death. But wen alone, or at night, he is simply the black-garbed wraith of the night, The Shadow.
Since The Shadow is a master of disguise, he does appear as two others in this story. He appears several times as the janitor at police headquarters, Fritz. And as usual when in that disguise, he limits his dialogue to a single word. “Yah” is all he ever says. But by listening in on police conversations while purportedly cleaning floors, he picks up valuable information. The Shadow also dons the guise of a Chicago businessman, Channing Rightwood. Rightwood is one of the investors who is slated for death, but when The Shadow takes over his identity, he is able to bait the killers into coming out into the open.
Assisting The Shadow are his agents Clyde Burke, the reporter, Harry Vincent, who is sent out of town on several missions, Cliff Marsland, who haunts the badlands of underworld Manhattan, Rutledge Mann, who compiles reports for The Shadow and Burbank, the trusty contact man. At police headquarters, we see familiar faces in Joe Cardona, ace detective, and Inspector Timothy Klein, his superior. Commissioner Weston only appears briefly on the final page of the story.
Even though all the gunplay is saved until the end, it is still an exciting story. We get to visit The Shadow’s sanctum, and are taken into the rarely visited laboratory. We also see that dusty and apparently abandoned “B. Jonas” office on Twenty-third Street. And we get to see that strange vial of purplish liquid which has amazing restorative powers. Unfortunately the wounded man dies before we get to see it in use, but it’s worth noting that The Shadow does carry it and intends to use it. This is it’s fifth appearance, for those who are counting.
Another point of interest is that we are told that The Shadow is able to draw a perfect circle freehand. This nearly-impossible feat is something reputed to have been accomplished by only a few in history. It’s said Leonardo daVinci and Michelangelo could draw a perfect circle freehand. Now we can add The Shadow to that list.
And we witness The Shadow using that nerve pinch that Mr. Spock made so famous on Star Trek. But The Shadow used it first. “The man slumped to the floor as The Shadow’s grip pressed firmly behind the fellow’s neck.” It doesn’t take a Vulcan to use that effective technique. I want to think the Vulcans learned it from reading Earth’s pulp magazines.
This is another top-notch Shadow story that you should read if you get the chance. It’s a good example of the earlier years of the magazine’s run. The Shadow is all knowing; all powerful. He’s the kind of hero that keeps you reading, turning the pages late into the night, to see what happens next. Good plot; good characterization; good action. Yup... I say, read it.
“The Sledge-Hammer Crimes” was originally published in the August 1, 1936 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Robbery... murder... mass destruction! All committed by sledge-hammer. The crimes struck at the heart of New York City like a gigantic hammer in the fist of a fiend - until The Shadow struck back with his own weapons.
The year 1936 was a good one for The Shadow Magazine. And this story is just one of twenty-three other reasons why that is so. It’s a fun, fast moving story of not quite 40,000 words length. It’s not the best that 1936 had to offer, but then please consider that there were some really terrific stories published in that year. The previous issue was “The Broken Napoleons” in which The Shadow takes on “The Vulture” at sea. The following issue was “Terror Island” which takes place off the Georgia coastline in a colonial plantation house. And sandwiched in between the two was “The Sledge-Hammer Crimes.” I suppose the story being reviewed here did suffer a bit by comparison. But that’s to take nothing from the story itself. It’s an excellent Shadow mystery, one which any Shadow fan should get a real kick out of.
Perhaps the least impressive thing about this story is its title. A reader might certainly question why he or she would want to read a story about crimes committed by sledge-hammer. But luckily the title is a bit misleading. Yes, the crimes are often committed by sledge-hammer, but they are assisted by a... well, let’s just say, a scientific device. So the title is somewhat weak. The magazine cover tried to make up for it with a “forceful” image, but even then The Shadow wasn’t included in the artwork... not even his silhouette. So readers might have understandably passed by on this one, based on what they saw displayed on the newsstands. But if so, they missed out on a pretty good story.
Our pulp mystery opens at the Mayan Museum in Manhattan. It is robbed and Lewis Lemand, the curator, killed. Not killed by just any means. But way of a short, stone-headed hammer; a Mayan relic. And the robbery wasn’t any simple thing, either. A large hole was broken through the four-foot-thick back wall to the museum, and half a million in pure gold relics were stolen. Only a sledge-hammer could have broken through that thick wall of brick and marble.
The Shadow sends out his agents to scour the area, but there are no clues to be found. Something evil is in the wind, and The Shadow knows that future crime will shortly appear. And sure enough, it does.
The second of the sledge-hammer crimes occurs at the establishment of Parker Clayborne, a wholesale dealer in precious stones. Again, thieves had sledged their way into the jeweler’s vault and robbed it of gems valued at a quarter million dollars. No murder this time; Clayborne wasn’t at the shop during the break-in.
The Shadow discovers that the edges of the holes sledged into the walls have a strange crumbly appearance. He begins to suspect that more than just a sledge-hammer was used. Perhaps some new invention is aiding crime. He suspects an old inventor by the name of Sanbrook Greel might be involved; he has invented an electro-vibrator device which might be useful in break-ins such as these. But that’s not the only person who’s suspect.
Tall and sharp-faced Prentiss Petersham, the attorney who represented the Mayan Museum, shows up at Clayborne’s jewelry shop as well. Might he be involved? And eccentric millionaire Elvin Lettigue has donated funds to the Mayan Museum. He’s also been to the jewelry shop. He certainly looks suspicious.
And then, the sledge-hammer gang strikes again! This time its the Channing National Bank. More than a million taken through a yawning opening in the rear wall of the vault. And another murder! Mr. Moreland, the bank vice president, is found dead - his skull crushed. Attorney Prentiss Petersham again just happens to be present. And millionaire Elvin Lettigue has just cashed a large check. Looking pretty suspicious!
It’s up to The Shadow to solve the crimes. It’s up to The Shadow to find the method used to break into the vaults. It’s up to The Shadow to unmask the murderer. And it’s up to The Shadow to reveal the hidden mastermind and thwart his future schemes. Yes, this is a job that only The Shadow can handle. And so he does, in another wonderful pulp mystery.
Walter Gibson wrote this story under the working title of “The Disintegrator.” But I guess the editors felt the title gave too much of the plot away (much like I’ve probably done here), so they changed it to “The Sledge-hammer Crimes.”
The familiar characters in this story include acting inspector Joe Cardona, Police Commissioner Ralph Weston, detective sergeant Markham, and agents Clyde Burke, Burbank, Rutledge Mann, Moe Shrevnitz, Cliff Marsland, Hawkeye, and Harry Vincent. And let’s not forget Stanley, the chauffeur. A new character at police headquarters is introduced. He’s dapper-faced inspector Gurney. He never appeared in any other Shadow story, and was only used here because Cardona was busy elsewhere when a police official was needed for a scene.
As far as The Shadows disguises go, he appears as Lamont Cranston and we also get so see The Shadow in his guise as Fritz, the janitor at police headquarters. He also appears at Pennsylvania Station wearing a new disguise. “He had the height of Lamont Cranston; but his features were sharper and his manner more brisk. No one would have identified him with his former personality.” Still the master of disguise!
Usually, Clyde Burke’s job at the New York Classic is only vaguely described. In this story, we meet Donney, the assistant city editor. And we actually see Burke write a newspaper story!
And speaking of jobs, this story reminds reades that Burbank and Rutledge Mann do much the same work, but in different ways. Both were contact agents. Burbank mainly used the telephone; Mann relied on written messages and visits to his office. Generally speaking, Burbank served at night while Mann served by day. Reader probably took all this for gratned, but it’s nice to see it spelled out occasionally, like it is here.
It will be remembered that Commissioner Weston left the magazine series for a while, and Commissioner Wainwright Barth replaced him. The reason, according to writer Walter Gibson, was that he wanted the police commissioner to continue to disbelieve in The Shadow. Weston had seen The Shadow just too many times, often being saved by him, and could no longer realistically claim there was no such character as The Shadow. So Barth was brought in. But by the time of this story, Barth had made his last appearance. Weston was back for good, and now he no longer claims that the black-cloaked figure could be more than one man. At the end of the story, The Shadow appears in his presence, and he seems to take it for granted, now, that The Shadow is a single character.
Another rare glimpse is seen inside the office of B. JONAS. Usually, it is simply a place where he receives messages from certain agents. But in this story, it’s pointed out that The Shadow uses it sometimes as an emergency sanctum. In this story, he visits the office, receives some messages, does a little paperwork, and then leaves by a secret exit. A tantalizing peek at the office with the web-covered door that we’d like to learn more about.
There is no mention of The Shadow’s famed rubber suction cups in this story. He still climbs the outside of a building to a second-floor window, but didn’t need those rubber discs. “The Shadow was an expert at acquiring toeholds. Soft-tipped shoes were silent aids.” Perhaps the sqidgy sound of those suction cups were a disadvantage.
So don’t be put off by the anemic title of this Shadow mystery. I think if you give it a try, you’ll find it to be a very satisfactory Shadow pulp adventure.