John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #79
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
“Crime Circus” was originally published in the April 15, 1934 issue of The Shadow Magazine. The Shadow takes a trip to the circus, fighting a gang of racketeers who are out for profit at any cost, including murder. Who’s trying to ruin the circus? And why? The Shadow will join the sideshow to find out the truth behind the crime circus.
As is typical of the magazine stories from the early 1930’s, this version of The Shadow is at his prime. He’s powerful; he’s invincible. He shoots more and misses less. The bad guys aren’t just wounded; they fall with a bullet in their brains. And the dead bodies begin to stack up like cordwood. This is The Shadow that you don’t want to mess with. He’s one mean mutha!
We start off with a two-chapter prologue that takes place in Manhattan. We track down a crime boss by the name of Dombo Carlin at the Black Ship. It turns out he’s working with his partner, Croaker Zinn. But Croaker Zinn is out of Manhattan on the road with the circus, traveling the mid-US from town to town. Combo Carlin is gathering up torpedoes (that’s gunmen to you and me) and sending them out west to join Zinn at the circus.
The Shadow wants to track down Croaker Zinn, so he has stalwart agent Cliff Marsland infiltrate Dombo Carlin’s gang. And sure enough, Dombo Carlin sends Cliff out to join the circus where Zinn is hiding out, planning his crimes. Cliff is given the secret password that will identify him at the circus. And it’s none too soon, because shortly thereafter Dombo Carlin and his gang are wiped out in a gun battle with The Shadow.
The circus action all begins in chapter three, and from then on we follow the circus as it travels from town to town. The setting of the story stays with the circus until the rousing climax of the tale. Cliff Marsland shows up at the Larch Circus and Greater Shows as it plays in a town called Marlborough. He checks out the main tent, then the sideshow, Captain Guffy’s Ten-in-One. It’s there that he hears the secret password given him by the New York gangster.
“Ceylon.” That’s the tip-off. When he hears the password uttered by Princess Marxia the snake charmer, he gives the response, “Where is Ceylon?” Now, probably that’s not the most foolproof of exchanged passwords, but it works in this story. It does make me wonder how many honest folk visiting the sideshow asked that same innocent question and were accidentally assumed to be thugs sent from Dombo Carlin in New York. But that’s never addressed, so we’ll move on.
Now that Cliff Marsland has identified himself, he’s inducted into the ranks of the gang. He’s given a special tattoo on the inside of his left forearm; it’s a red circle. When he’s mixed with the other roustabouts, he can identify fellow members of the gang by that secret symbol. All of the thugs secretly working for Croaker Zinn have that sporty little tattoo on their arms. When they roll up their sleeves and flash that red circle to others, they can recognize each other as fellow paid torpedoes for Zinn. And hopefully, honest circus folk won’t wonder about the abundance of red circles tattooed on left forearms. The honest folks aren’t too bright, it seems. Or at least too inquisitive.
Yes, Cliff Marsland is now on the job. But he’s not alone. The Shadow has come to the circus as well. He skulks about in the darkness, and discovers Professor Solva and Madame Solva, the sideshow mind reading act, passing counterfeit money. Counterfeit one-dollar bills, as well. Not too smart, since there wasn’t enough profit in it. They say that today, the twenty-dollar bill is the most counterfeited. Back then, I believe it would have been the five.
But regardless, this gang is making up queer ones. And it’s gotten the attention of the Feds. So by the time The Shadow appears at the circus, secret service man Vic Marquette and his crack team of agents are already on the scene. They take out the mind-reading couple, which leaves an empty spot in the sideshow. A perfect opportunity for The Shadow.
The Shadow joins the circus as sideshow performer Zoda the Magnificent, mind-reader extraordinaire. And once he’s securely ensconced as one of the sideshow performers, he can keep an eye on the suspicious activities. Can he discover the identity behind which hides the master criminal Croaker Zinn? And who is trying to run the circus out of business? And why? What is the secret past of Lucille Lavan, Queen of the High Wire? There’s a thousand questions for The Shadow to answer, and answer them he will, as he battles in the crime circus.
For most of the story, The Shadow battles with only Cliff Marsland at his side. Yes, good old Cliffie gets the lion’s share (a little circus-pun, there) of the action in this pulp tale. But as we near the end, The Shadow brings in trusted agent Harry Vincent as well. The only other agent appearing in this story is Burbank, who appears in the first two chapters that take place in Manhattan.
Secret Service agent Vic Marquette is a semi-regular, and is the representative of law and order in our tale. Vic also gets to donn some makeup and appear in disguise. Since that disguise isn’t revealed until the end of the story, I won’t specify his character here. Don’t want to spoil the surprise ending for you.
And speaking of makeup, The Shadow gets to show off his mastery of makeup here. He appears in several different guises. Not only does he skulk through the night in his cloak of black, but he also appears on stage as Zoda the mind reader. He shows up briefly in his favorite disguise as millionaire Lamont Cranston, as well as one of my personal favorites, Fritz the dull-faced janitor at police headquarters in New York. As usual, poor old Fritz doesn’t get much dialogue. About three “yah’s” is all.
This is one of the more exciting of the Shadow pulp novels. The Shadow is quick-triggered and has no compunction about shooting to kill. He moves through the night in total silence. No one sees him unless he wants them to. And he’s extraordinarily strong, carrying a beefy hoodlum over his shoulders as he jumps across Manhattan rooftops.
And The Shadow once again displays his mastery over the beasts. In one scene, he enters a tiger’s cage in the middle of the night. The killer beast readies to attack, but The Shadow issues a mysterious hiss. With a catlike whine, the big beast shifts, raises one paw, and settles down, his striped head between his paws. The man-eater has felt the dominating power of The Shadow’s amazing presence.
We get to see a lot of the circus, especially behind the scenes. We meet Eric Wernoff, the Animal King. Jubo, the wild man from Java. Baby Liz, the fattest of all the fat women. Cleed, the Cigarette Fiend. Luke, the Tattooed Man. Princess Marxia, Queen of the Reptile World. And more!
You know, looking back at those sideshows of yesteryear, they were unbelievably policically incorrect. Today most of the people on display in the old sideshows would be called handicapped or challenged. Back then, they were called freaks. And people paid to gawk at them and make rude comments aloud. My, how time changes.
I mustn’t forget to mention the rubber suction cups. The famous ones that The Shadow uses to scale the outside walls of buildings. He uses them in this story to scale the outside of a local hotel. He only gets up to the second or third floor, but it’s still a pretty amazing feat.
It should be pointed out that there were few female villains in author Walter Gibson’s stories. But this story had one. Princess Marxia, the snake charmer who originally identified Cliff Marsland as one of the gang, is as murderous as her male cohorts. And in the end, she meets poetic justice at the hands (fangs) of her poisonous serpents. That’s another rarity for Gibson: death of a female. Unlike alternate Shadow author Theodore Tinsley, Walter Gibson rarely let a female die.
And what about Cliff Marsland’s “red circle” tattoo? Back in those days you couldn’t get tattoos removed. There was no laser surgery; there were no lasers! Back then, when you got a tattoo, it was for life. So, how did he explain the tattoo to the wife? He was the only married agent, remember. That happened in 1932’s “Mobsmen on the Spot.” I can just hear her screaming at him, “Where have you been? Out on a two-week drunk and came back with a tattoo?”
But come to think of it, we haven’t heard anything of the little woman since “Crime Cult” published two years previously. Maybe by this time she was out of his life. Maybe she got tired of those unexplained disappearances for days on end while he was helping The Shadow fight crime. We’ll never know for sure, because Walter Gibson never put the details on paper. She just faded away. And as for Cliff, he apparently lived out his life with a red circle on his left forearm.
Sometimes when you’re reading a particularly good pulp novel, you just can’t put it down. That’s the sign of a good one. And that’s how it was for me when I read “Crime Circus.” I just couldn’t put it down. So, it gets a big thumbs up from me. Highly recommended!
“Noose of Death” was published in the July 1, 1939 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Murder victims are found strangled beside small six-inch nooses made of clothline. And before The Shadow can confront the killer, he’ll have to make a visit out west to a dude ranch and a sinister cave of doom!
At the beginning of our story, Inspector Joe Cardona is returning to New York on the Twentieth Century Limited. He spies a man with the slight but unmistakable signs of plastic surgury, and before long has identified the unknown man. It’s Gunner Malone, wanted in New York for a dozen atrocious murders!
As the train enters New York, Gunner Malone makes good his escape from Cardona and the police. But he can’t escape death. Death by strangulation. Strangulation by a lariat thrown through a hotelroom window.
Gunner Malone was in that hotel room to meet with Jack Bishop and plan on the culmination of a scheme to steal something worth millions from “a man who doesn’t know he has it.” Jack Bishop was a worthy associate of Gunner Malone. Although supposed to be a Wall Street broker, his real racket was gambling. But before Malone can tell Bishop the details of his evil plan, he’s mysteriously murdered by that lariat right before Bishop’s eyes.
Bishop’s job is now to follow the few slim clues left before Malone’s demise and track down the millions that are waiting unclaimed. And just what is this mysterious treasure? We only know it has something to do with young Ralph Trent.
Ralph Trent has just been released from prison. He spent six months in Sing Sing, convicted of the theft of bonds from the vault at the bank where he was cashier. The missing bonds were recently found out west and young Ralph was exonerated. Ralph has been pardoned by the governor and is returning home to Ferndale. There his father, Charles Trent, waits for him penniless, all his wealth spent on clearing his son’s name.
And then there’s the love interest. All the while young Ralph was in prison, his fiance Ruth Manning has waited for him faithfully. Ruth’s father, Jim Manning, is vice president of the bank where Ralph previously worked. Jim Manning and bank president George Duncan both believe Ralph Trent is guilty of the theft. And so does the entire town of Ferndale. They believe old Charles Trent bribed his son’s way to freedom.
And into all this steps The Shadow. The Shadow is involved from the beginning when Gunner Malone is strangled by lariat. And as more deaths pop up, each accompanied by the small six-inch noose lying by the body, The Shadow narrows down his search for the guilty party. Yes, bodies start dropping like flies. And before this story is over, it will take the cunning of The Shadow to reveal the secret treasure, to unmask the killer, and to rejoin the star-crossed lovers.
Assisting The Shadow in this story are Clyde Burke, reporter for the Daily Classic and secret agent for The Shadow, Burbank, special agent who maintains contact between The Shadow and his agents, and Harry Vincent, perhaps longest in the service of The Shadow of any agent save Burbank. Rutledge Mann, investment broker and Shadow agent, is mentioned briefly but makes no appearance. Joe Cardona appears at the beginning of the story, but takes no further part after chapter four. And The Shadow, of course, appears disguised as millionaire Lamont Cranston. The real Cranston is again conveniently out of the country on one of his many trips.
Lots of interesting little tidbits about the characters appear in this story. There’s The Shadow’s car, for instance. When he’s not having Stanley chauffeur him around in the limousine, The Shadow likes to drive a light, low-priced car. But under the hood of the coupe is a racing engine custom-built to special order. And secret compartments in the car contain everything from burglar tools to a compact kit of theatrical make-up. Too bad this car isn’t mentioned very often in the other stories. It sounds really interesting!
And in this story, we’re once again reminded of The Shadow’s ability to read lips. Here, he uses a pair of powerful field glasses to ascertain the conversation between young Ralph Trent and a landlady from across a street. Did he learn this ability during the Great War, perhaps as part of some spy training?
We also get to see The Shadow’s mastery over beasts again. In other stories, we’ve seen The Shadow’s ability to control dogs and other smaller animals. Here, he also tames a bucking bronco with his strange abilities.
Rarely in these stories is The Shadow asked the most obvious question directly: “Who are you?” In this one, young Ralph Trent meets up with The Shadow and asks that question. The answer? The Shadow just smiles and shakes his head. And that’s just the right kind of answer, if you ask me.
Stanley, Lamont Cranston’s chauffeur, gets into the action a bit, here. Although he was never one of The Shadow’s secret agents, and had no idea that his master was actually The Shadow in disguise, he still gets to do a little work for The Shadow. He’s assigned the task of keeping an eye on slippery Jack Bishop, the gambler, and performs his job quite well. It’s explained that “he never questioned Lamont Cranston’s unusual orders; for he thought Cranston a bit eccentric.”
I always figured that Burbank must be an expert at shorthand, because he could take down reports from agents so quickly. But it was never stated explicitly until now. As The Shadow gives him a complicated series of orders in this story, his fast-moving pencil records accurately all details, right down to every syllable!
A couple oddities, though. In one passage of the novel, we read that inside Cranston’s briefcase is his robe and slouch hat. Robe? It’s a cloak! Since when was it called a robe? I don’t remember ever seeing such a refernce before. Makes me wonder if it was a typo that slipped past the editors, or if the word “robe” was being used as a synonym for “cloak.”
And a question I have. Mention is made of some land that was “tax exempt” because it was a free land grant to a pioneer ancestor of Trent’s. I wonder if there are still “tax exempt” lands in this country, if indeed there ever actually were. Or was this just a literary creation? Anyone?
This is a slightly more violent Shadow novel than usual. And that can be explained by the fact that it wasn’t written by Walter Gibson, but rather Theodore Tinsley. Tinsley is noted for his more graphic Shadow stories. But he’s rather restrained in this one. No torture. No graphic descriptions of death. No sex. Just a little extra “edge” that tips you off to the fact that it’s not one of Gibson’s stories. That, and the underground cavern. Tinsley loved caves and caverns, and they usually wound up in his stories. And such is the case, here.
The Shadow takes a bit of a beating in this story, as again is a bit more typical of Tinsley’s writing style. He’s forced to inhale poisonous gasses in once scene. And in the climax, Tinsley has him doused in oil and set afire! Now that’s pulp!
I really enjoyed this story, as I do most of Tinsley’s work.