John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #117
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"Master of Flame" was originally published in the May 15, 1941, issue of The Shadow Magazine. A secret formula for a chemical miracle; a robed and hooded sinister figure who murders even his own henchmen; and a maddened scientist who wildly proclaims himself to be the Master of Flame! Can The Shadow meet this incredible challenge?
This is a fairly routine Shadow novel, which is a surprise since it was authored by Theodore Tinsley, who usually brought a certain amount of flair to the plots. It starts out with a bang, and makes a lot of promises to the reader. But then it loses a lot of its punch and slows down to a pretty standard story. What starts out as an exciting story filled with mystery and intrigue ends up letting the reader down. Strange mysteries that Tinsley takes pages and pages to carefully set up and describe are never explained, loose threads are left hanging, and the whole finale seems rushed. In the end, what could have been another of Tinsley’s knockout Shadow stories becomes a standard “identify the bad guy” story.
We meet Clifford Mason at the beginning of this story. Mason is a scientist who has just made a fantastic discovery. It’s a chemical formula. Although we aren’t told until the very end of the story what this formula is, we do know that it will make his name famous, and is worth millions of dollars. And we also know that someone else is out to get that formula.
A masked and robed master criminal is out to get Mason’s formula. This unknown nemesis lures Mason’s young daughter, Dorothy, out of the house for the evening. And then he kidnaps the poor inventor. Mason is taken to an empty house on upper Broadway. There in the cellar, the hooded figure wrings the secret formula from Clifford Mason. Next he forces Mason to repeat some strange words into a microphone, and makes a record of them. Then he slowly chokes Mason to death. He buries the body, and before closing the makeshift grave, he pours acid on the body. After filling in the hole in the cellar floor, a layer of concrete is carefully laid over the grave, erasing any sign of the burial site. The body of Clifford Mason will never be found.
Then the sinister hooded figure of the unknown crime boss drags out a long flat box. Inside lies a skeleton. In the grinning jaws is evidence of considerable dental work. The fillings, inlays and caps are all duplicates of the dental work in the mouth of the buried Clifford Mason. The skeleton is taken to Mason’s laboratory and laid on the floor. Mason’s fireproof safe is plundered, thanks to the combination that was coerced from the tortured inventor. And the place is rigged to explode into flame.
Meanwhile, Dorothy, the inventor’s twenty-two year old daughter, has met Lamont Cranston at the theater, and he escorts her home. When she finds her father not at home, she and Cranston walk out back to the laboratory and knock on the door. From inside the locked lab, the voice of Clifford Mason rings out: “Don’t bother me, Dorothy! I’m busy! I’m working on the biggest invention of my career. I’ve conquered flame! I know the secret of fire! I’m going to master the world—with flame!”
The voice that Dorothy hears is the recording that the hooded villain made before he killed her father. But as far as she and Cranston know, it’s the voice of the living inventor inside the laboratory. From inside comes the sound of a muffled explosion followed by the crackle of flames. The lab is on fire! It burns with a white hot flame, destroying the contents of the lab. Dorothy passes out, leaving Cranston in charge.
When the flames are finally out and the blackened remains are cool enough to search, Cranston finds the skeleton left by the hooded villain’s thugs. The dental records match, and he believes he has found the remains of Clifford Mason. (Apparently, Cranston is into dentistry, now, since he can identify his friend by his dental work.) Little does The Shadow know that this skeleton was planted here, and Mason died elsewhere and is buried in the cellar of that empty house. Inside the fireproof safe is found Mason’s secret formula. But it’s gibberish. What The Shadow doesn’t know is that the sinister robed figure got the combination to the safe when he tortured Mason. The real formula was stolen, and the gibberish was left in its place.
Why was the duplicate skeleton necessary? Why the elaborate ruse of bringing in another carefully doctored skeleton to take the place of Clifford Mason? Since Mason was dead, why not just use his own dead body? Ah, that’s just one of the many mysteries in this story. It’s also one of the unanswered mysteries. The reader trusts that all will be explained in the end. But unfortunately, it is not. Author Tinsley really lets us down by setting up these complicated maneuvers, and allowing the reader to assume that all will be explained in the end. What a letdown to find that no such explanation is forthcoming. The reader is well justified in feeling cheated!
And what’s with this “Master of Flame” business? It’s never referred to again. Several other businesses are destroyed in the course of the story, as the masked mastermind seeks to gather the necessary resources to take advantage of the secret formula. One burns down, but there’s never any mention of anything unusual. Another blows up, but still no relation to the Master of Flame. No one ever claims to be the Master of Flame. There is no secret flame weapon, although that sure would have been cool. It’s all a big ruse to make the reader buy the pulp. Other than the recording in which Mason claims to have mastered flame, there is nothing in the entire story that relates to the pulp story title. Another big letdown for the reader.
Young Roy Hilton is the love interest for Dorothy Mason. He might be considered the proxy hero, although his part really isn’t big enough to create much interest from the readers. In one scene, he picks up a stranded motorist, a honey blonde with a beautiful figure. But she’s really in league with the hidden criminal mastermind, and lures him into a trap. Later, after Hilton is safe, The Shadow spends a lot of time trying to determine who she is. Could she be Belle Keller, the actress? Or perhaps her look-alike understudy? Another mystery is built up as Clyde Burke interviews the actress and later visits the theater to investigate her understudy who doubles as her. But all this mystery is created only to be later abandoned, and never resolved. We never find out who lured Roy Hilton into the trap. And we never find out what happened to her. Yet another disappointment for the reader of this pulp story.
Finally, The Shadow tracks down the mystery man. As expected, he turns out to be one of the respected figures that has appeared in the story all the way along. And we finally learn the contents of that mystery formula. What was worth all the murders and destroying several factories? The secret is... synthetic wool. Huh? That’s it? All that for synthetic wool? Maybe in this pre-war tale, synthetic wool was a hot commodity, but I have trouble imagining it. Come on, give me a secret formula for artificial gemstones, or for some war weapon or something. When I got to the end of the story and discovered the big secret wasn’t all that big, I felt let down, yet again.
There are some interesting parts to this story, so it’s not a complete waste of time. We visit the Cobalt Club where Cranston keeps a private suite for occasions when he is spending time in town away from his New Jersey estate. In the suite is a hidden compartment that contains the raiment of The Shadow. Behind a secret panel is the black cloak, the slouch hat and the twin .45 automatics. This wasn’t something Walter Gibson wrote into the Shadow stories, but was a creation of Theodore Tinsley. I’m not sure if that makes it canon or not. Do Tinsley’s stories count as canon?
This story has definite marks of being written by Theodore Tinsley. The Shadow is a bit more bloodthirsty. He’s not interested in taking prisoners. In his own words, “Surrender—or die!” That’s typical Tinsley. The Shadow is also more prone to getting wounded. In this story, he’s struck in the thigh by a bullet. He heats a knife blade with his cigarette lighter and extracts the slug. That’s also typical Tinsley.
Walter Gibson rarely had women on the other side of the law. Tinsley often featured gun molls and female villains. In this story, we have the mysterious female who lures Roy Hilton into a trap. Tinsley would also include drugs in his stories. This one features a packet of white crystals which The Shadow sniffs and recognizes as dope. Tinsley’s stories were also big on torture, which is featured near the beginning of this story when the masked criminal extracts information from the hapless inventor.
And as usual, there are a few minor things that Tinsley gets wrong. He keeps referring to The Shadow’s cloak as a robe. There is a difference! His description of The Shadow’s sanctum is fairly accurate, but he indicates there is total silence, “Not even the faint tick of a clock.” I guess he forgot about that strange clock that sits on the sanctum table. The one with the concentric circles that was mentioned in a half dozen of Walter Gibson’s stories. Tinsley never acknowledged the existence of that clock in any of his stories.
As far as familiar characters, they are all here. Rutledge Mann the insurance broker, Stanley the chauffeur, Clyde Burke the reporter, Miles Crofton the pilot, Cliff Marsland the underworld contact, taxi-driver Moe Shrevnitz, contact-man Burbank and Harry Vincent the most seasoned agent. Poor Harry really gets a workout in this story. He’s badly burned and in bad shape. He suffers severe second-degree burns. The Shadow sends Miles Crofton west to pick up a noted skin-grafting surgeon for Harry. And we are told that it would be many weeks before Harry would be able to leave the hospital.
Inspector Joe Cardona appears for the police, but there’s no sign of Commissioner Weston. Hawkeye is the only regular agent who doesn’t appear. And no sign of Margo Lane, because she wasn’t slated to appear in the pulps for another two issues. The Shadow appears as a querulous old man, who might be Phineas Twambley. But his name is never mentioned, so we can’t be sure.
This is a Shadow story that I can’t recommend. Although it starts out with great promise, it soon becomes a very routine Shadow adventure. And the ending leaves way too many loose ends unresolved. A good example is the stolen book entitled “Fire, Earth and Water.” It had been written during the Middle Ages, on the subject of transmuting lead into gold. A big deal is made about it, but then nothing comes of it. The reader falsely assumes that something really cool must be coming, but at the end of the story it all turns out to be about synthetic wool.
Be forewarned. If you read this story, be prepared to be dissatisfied. The story promises much, but delivers little. Not one of Theodore Tinsley’s better efforts.
"Town of Hate" was published in the July 1944 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Lamira—the town of hate—home to two feuding houses. Which house was the monstrosity? It depended upon your viewpoint. Which man was the monster... Which was the murderous arsonist who struck with lightning from the sky? The town-folk of Lamira would have to depend upon The Shadow’s genius for unmasking crime for the answer!
This is one of the better Shadow stories of 1944. Admittedly, this wasn’t the best year of Shadow mysteries. Those years had passed. But there were still some good pulp adventures in the year 1944, such as “Freak Show Murders” and “Voodoo Death.” And this one, “Town of Hate”. Not great, but pretty good, all considered. Some of the chase scenes seemed to just drag on and on endlessly. But the wonderful underground climax scene helps make up for any earlier weaknesses.
The town of hate is Lamira, a good sized town in the Kawagha Valley. It’s divided by hatred: the town-folk and the country-folk.
It all began when wealthy Preston Brett came to town. He bought a sheep pasture from land-owner Claude Bigby, and built his dream house upon it. Preston Brett was everything that Claude Bigby was not.
Brett was forward-looking, a man who saw great things in Lamira’s future, a man who bought the mill and sought to expand it. The house he built was a futuristic dwelling called Future Haven.
Bigby was a conservative, a friend of the farmer, a large land-owner and owner of the old ivy-walled homestead called The Gables. Ill-will was created when Preston Brett bought his pasture under false pretenses and then built his modern monstrosity upon it.
Yes, there’s hatred between the two men. And between their two groups of followers. Preston Brett has made friends with the town-folk. They have jobs in his mill. They want to see progress and growth in their town. Claude Bigby is friends with the farmers. They don’t want industry to ruin their town and the surrounding farms and orchards.
There have been mysterious fires lately in Lamira. Several farmhouses have burned to the ground in the past month. Claude Bigby with his cooperative insurance company is covering the losses, but each fire strains the company coffers further.
One night during a thunderstorm, Zeke Stoyer secretes a strange black box behind the Old Bridge Tavern, a building over a century old. He attaches a wire to a lightening rod, and hightails it out of there. And within minutes lightening strikes; there is an explosion, a fire, and the landmark Old Bridge Inn burns down.
A mysterious figure meets Zeke in the storm and snaps his neck. One less witness to the schemes of a mastermind. The unknown figure drops the dead body of Zeke over an embankment onto the highway, to make it appear he slipped in the mud and broke his neck in the fall. The body falls in front of a moving vehicle—a car driven by Lamont Cranston!
Yes Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane are driving through the storm when the body of Zeke Stoyer falls in front of them. And thus The Shadow enters the story. Soon he is up to his eyeballs in murder and intrigue.
Who’s responsible for all this? Could it be Preston Brett, Claude Bigby’s nemesis? Or Ralph Lenstrom who has come to town to invest fifty thousand dollars into Brett’s new industries? Maybe it’s Herbert Creswold, owner of the Star Theater who calls himself “everybody’s friend.” Or could it be Claude Bigby, himself?
Ralph Lenstrom’s car is rammed by another vehicle during the night. He is brutally murdered and his fifty-thousand cash is stolen. OK, that leaves Lenstrom out of the picture. Things are heating up!
The Shadow calls in his agents Harry Vincent, Cliff Marsland and Clyde Burke. They take over the jobs of trailing the various suspects, keeping tabs on their whereabouts and checking on alibis. But the crimes continue.
Another fire. This time at the Fairfield farm. It destroys the barn and the house, making another financial blow to the cooperative insurance fund.
Then Preston Brett is robbed at the mill office. Robbed of the sixty thousand dollars that was to go to the mill workers as a bonus. A masked man makes a successful getaway with the money. Bigby, too, is robbed of the money he has been collecting from the farmers to help with the mystery farmhouse fires.
Somebody out there is acquiring a lot of stolen money! It will take The Shadow to find out who the sinister mastermind actually is. It will take The Shadow to recover the stolen wealth. And it will take The Shadow to unveil the mystery surrounding the town of hate!
In this story, The Shadow appears in his oft-used disguise as Lamont Cranston, wealthy businessman. Nothing is mentioned of Cranston the globetrotter and big-game hunter; no he’s just a businessman, now. Assisting him are his agents Harry Vincent, Cliff Marsland, Clyde Burke and Margo Lane. It should be noted that Margo is portrayed as a competent agent in this story. She’s no token female, no damsel in distress.
By this point in the evolution of the series, The Shadow takes to switching from his Cranston disguise into his black-cloaked self in front of Margo Lane. When she was introduced to the series in mid-1941, Margo recognized some connection between the two men. As things continued, she began to suspect Cranston was an agent of The Shadow. Then finally, she realized he was The Shadow. By this time, three years later, she takes it for granted when Cranston becomes The Shadow in her presence, and doesn’t blink an eye.
While most people prefer the earlier Shadow stories—and I must agree—I found this one had a lot going for it. I liked it better than many of the other mid-1940s stories. Any story that features a rousing climax in an underground cavern with hidden passages can’t be all bad!
Don’t be put off by the somewhat boring title. It’s actually a pretty decent Shadow yarn. You could do worse.