John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #118
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"Teeth of the Dragon" was originally published in the November 15, 1937 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Members of a secret Chinese society known as the Jeho Fan use these strange white dragon's teeth as tokens of recognition; they also refer to themselves as the Teeth of the Dragon. The Shadow travels to San Francisco's Chinatown in order to meet the threat of the Jeho Fan and confront the evil hoards that they rule.
At the story's opening, The Shadow is in California. He is there arranging passage on the clipper for China. The Chinese government wants to raise one hundred million dollars for national defense. Ten million of that is to pay for the ransom of General Cho Tsing, a friend of The Shadow's. The General was kidnapped by the Jeho Fan and carried to the interior of China.
The Shadow, disguised as wealthy Lamont Cranston, is planning on going to China ostensibly to assist in the financial arrangements. His real reason, of course, is to free his old friend General Cho Tsing. But The Shadow never makes it to China. The day before his date of passage, The Shadow is involved in thwarting smugglers, bringing in a load of illegal Chinese immigrants.
The Shadow drives a powerful, low-slung roadster down the Pacific Highway at one hundred miles an hour. He's making for the landing point of the smugglers. The trawler Tantalus will soon be unloading its illegal cargo along the California coast. The Shadow knows that the Coast Guard has been alerted, and the lives of the innocent Chinese on board are in peril. If the Coast Guard intercepts the trawler before The Shadow, the crew will most likely murder their cargo and dump the human evidence overboard.
For some reason, the skipper of the Tantalus would rather beach the ship and wreck it in the booming surf than risk capture. For some unknown reason, he's determined to unload his Chinese cargo intact. The ship is beached, and a small group of Chinese are hustled off the ship under heavy guard.
The Shadow isn't able to investigate the identity of the men in that group, because he's too busy battling the smugglers from the ship as well as a crew of cutthroats waiting for them on the shore. By the time he's gotten free from battle, the mysterious group of guarded men has disappeared. Who was in that group? Could it be that General Cho Tsing has been smuggled into America?
The truck driver of the heavily guarded Chinese, one Lubber Kreef by name, is slipped an envelope. In whispered tones, he is told that if he can deliver it to the man it's meant for, it's worth five thousand dollars. But he can't read the name on the envelope; it is in Chinese.
Lubber Kreef takes the envelope to San Francisco's Chinatown to find someone who can read the addressee's name. What he gets, though, are looks of fear and awe. No one will tell him what the name says. The reason: it says "Ying Ko." The Chinese name for The Shadow!
What is in the envelope addressed to Ying Ko that is so important that it is worth five thousand dollars to the man who delivers it? Where is General Cho Tsing? Who is the feared head of the Jeho Fan, known as the Tao Fan? These are questions that must be answered by The Shadow in his fight to free his old friend from China, General Cho Tsing.
This entire story takes place in San Francisco's Chinatown. For that reason, none of The Shadow's familiar agents are present to assist their master. There is one familiar character that shows up, however. That's Doctor Roy Tam. Doctor Tam is the progressive modern Chinese friend of The Shadow who first appeared in the 1935 story "The Fate Joss." This story marks his fourth appearance in The Shadow pulps.
Normally, Doctor Tam resided in New York. However, he came to San Francisco because of rumors that the long defunct Jeho Fan had been recently revived in China and had spread to San Francisco's Chinatown. And as such, he is The Shadow's only aide in this story.
The only other familiar character from previous pulp stories is government agent Vic Marquette. He appears but briefly in the last chapter to help mop up the bad guys.
The Shadow appears in disguise as Lamont Cranston for part of the story. He appears briefly as a tall American, whose face, though hawkish, bears little resemblance to Cranston's. But for most of the action, he's the faceless black-cloaked mystery figure. This master of disguise also appears in one other guise in this story. But to reveal the identity of this disguise would be to reveal an important plot point. So let's just suffice it to say that The Shadow uses his mastery of makeup to fool us all once again.
Myra Reldon is a recurring character who is introduced in this story. The character is one which would appear again in The Shadow mysteries. To those of you who read The Shadow out of order, you already know of Myra Reldon. To those of you who read The Shadow in order, this will be your first introduction to her. As such, you may want to skip over the next few paragraphs, which might spoil the enjoyment of the story. You've been warned...
Myra Reldon disguises herself as a Chinese maiden named Ming Dwan. As those of you know who have read later stories, Myra Reldon is an undercover government agent in disguise. In later stories, she worked for The Shadow and became a most capable agent. She helped The Shadow fight his most famous adversary, Shiwan Khan.
However, in this introductory story, Myra Reldon acts in a way that could be interpreted in two conflicting manners. We are lead to believe that she is a high-ranking member of the Jeho Fan. It's only at the story's end that we discover she's one of the good guys. She has been on the side of right the whole time. We can look back at her previous actions that seemed to be working against The Shadow, and see how we misinterpreted them.
Author Walter Gibson used much the same technique in introducing several other recurring characters. When Doctor Roy Tam was first introduced in 1935, it also appeared he was one of the villains of the piece. In a twist ending to the story, it was revealed that Doctor Tam had been working on the same side as The Shadow the whole time.
Miles Crofton, The Shadow's pilot, was also introduced in a similar manner. When he first appeared in the 1934 story "The Unseen Killer," he seemed to be one of the gang working against The Shadow. But in the last chapter, we discover that we have misinterpreted his actions. He's really innocent and on the side of the law. Walter Gibson designed the story to mislead the reader. And he uses this trick a third time with "Teeth of the Dragon."
So anyway, Myra Reldon is here. And she seems to be one of the Jeho Fan. But knowing in advance that she must be assisting the cause of The Shadow, even though appearances seem to contradict that, it's interesting to see the craft of the author as Gibson fools us into thinking she's evil without ever coming out and specifically saying so.
END OF SPOILER
The various Chinatown stories of The Shadow have always been fan favorites. Perhaps it's the mysterious allure of the East. But along with that allure comes the unfortunate racial stereotypes and slurs that were common at that time. The Chinese are often referred to by the "ink" word. They are referred to as mysterious, lurking, rat-faced, slant-eyed, opium-smoking and scarcely human; not very flattering. Such would obviously not be accepted in today's world. But you need to keep in mind that this was a totally different world of the 1930's. Accept it in its historical perspective, then move on and enjoy the rest of the story.
Chinatown stories are typically filled with death traps that The Shadow must survive. And this one's no exception. It's filled with death traps, as The Shadow must make his way into the inner citadel of Li Sheng, the merchant. There's the square cage of iron bars that are crisscrossed in a diabolical manner; this is the Chinese torture cage designed to make its occupant as uncomfortable as possible.
There is a large, four-foot-wide tube that extends down into a wall at forty-five degrees. A human sliding down uncontrollably is sliced in half by a gigantic cleaver. The Shadow must face this blade of death! There is the Dragon Cell, where men lose their reason. The cell fills with the Dragon's Breath, and when they breath the gas they will become babbling idiots. The Shadow is scheduled to be thrown into the Dragon Cell!
And let's not forget the trap door that falls from beneath The Shadow's feet. Far below, the chasm leads to an underground inlet from the bay. And there's the half-ton brass door that crashes down dealing death to anyone beneath it. A beautifully decorated room from which men never escape; it's filled with an odorless gas. A passageway that requires a secret password to avoid death by blade. Three doors with a secret catch; those not knowing the secret are hurtled into a tiny cell. And the ever-popular favorite: the pit of sharp spikes. Yes, there's death-traps aplenty in this Chinatown tale.
The Devil's Whisper, that mysterious explosive concoction, appears in this story. It's described as a powder, here. Usually it's described as a salve that The Shadow rubs on his thumb and forefinger. When he snaps his fingers, there is a loud explosion and a blinding flash. Although the result is the same, in this story it's described as a powdery substance hidden within a tiny pocket of The Shadow's cloak. The powder does need moisture, which in this story The Shadow supplies by running his hand to his forehead and using his perspiration. Then, it's BOOM! A flash of light, a puff of smoke and a thunder-like explosion.
The Shadow is seen to make a three-story climb up the outside of a building in this pulp story. He doesn't use those famous rubber discs to help him. I guess he left his suction cups back in New York. But he has no trouble scaling the sheer wall using any tiny crevices he finds, gaining toe-holds with his soft-tipped shoes.
One thing he didn't leave back in New York was a change of clothing. I refer to his outfit of black. In one scene he is forced to lose his cloak and slouch hat. But later, he appears again in a fresh cloak, gloves and hat. Makes me wonder how many of these things he carried around with him. I think he must have a full-time seamstress on duty, sewing these things up for him. Either that, or he sits at home nights with needle and thread making his own. Somehow, that's a hard image to visualize...
Any Chinatown story is a favorite of mine. This one certainly fills the bill. Ya gotta love those death-traps! And the first appearance of Myra Reldon is a big plus, as well. If you haven't read this one, you really should. It's a corker!
"Jade Dragon" was originally published in the September issue of The Shadow Magazine. The Shadow, master stalker of the night, finds himself trailing a beautiful woman through the foggy alleyways of San Francisco's Chinatown on a quest for a rare and deadly talisman -- a Jade Dragon.
This is a special Shadow story today, and it was special back when the story was originally published. When Shadow fans went to their newsstand to pick up the September issue of The Shadow Magazine in 1948, they were in for a big surprise. The "old" Shadow was back! The magazine was bigger; thicker; the main story was over double the size of the stories published in the previous months. And as for the story itself, it harkened back to the glory days of The Shadow.
As fans read the opening page editorial from William J. De Grouchy, they realized that the Shadow of old had returned. To quote part of that editorial:
"Nostalgia! That's the key theme of the age.... The office mail, of which there is much, clearly tells us that you want the old SHADOW back again. So here he is in all his glory, with all his agents, in his oldest most beloved setting - Chinatown in San Francisco."
This, then, is the "comeback" Shadow story. You've probably heard that The Shadow magazine started going downhill in the mid to late 1940's. Walter Gibson even left, and Bruce Elliott took over the writing of the stories. The stories were short, boring, and occasionally didn't even feature The Shadow at all!
But then, in an effort to recapture its lost glory, Walter Gibson was brought back in 1948, the stories lost their "modern detective" feeling, and returned to the classic Shadow mysteries that were fondly remembered by Shadow fans. The size of the stories mushroomed back up to nearly 55,000 words (from a lowly 23,000), harkening back to those wonderful longer stories of the early 1930's.
This story, JADE DRAGON, is the story that started the comeback. It was the first story written by Walter Gibson in nearly two years. And reading it is a real pleasure, very reminiscent of The Shadow's heyday in the mid 1930's. But as history has shown, it was a case of "too little, too late." The decline of the magazine had begun, and even the return of Gibson and the classic story styles weren't enough to save the magazine. It closed four issues later.
This story features a Chinatown setting, one of Gibson's specialties that his fans always looked forward to. The story begins as The Shadow follows a young girl down a foggy alley in Chinatown. She enters the dusty shop of Koon Wan and purchases a strange jade figure of a dragon from the old proprietor. This is the Jade Dragon of Tsai Hsun. But as soon as she leaves, a weird inhuman form crawls from a hiding place and strangles the ancient Chinese.
In the hand of the corpse, he leaves a coin, a metal token; an unlucky token, where Koon Wan was concerned. Stamped from silver, it has a green border and its center bears Chinese characters of the same hue. The color is permanent, imprinted in the metal much like fine lacquer work on wood. What can be the meaning of this strange token? Who is the mysterious girl? What does she want with the figurine? Why was Koon Wan killed?
These are questions that flash through the mind of "Ying Ko," The Shadow, when he enters the shop moments later to discover the body. His quest for justice leads him through the bowels of Chinatown in search of tong killers, as he penetrates their underground headquarters at the end of a twisty maze beneath the heart of Chinatown. It's a great story, and a most suitable comeback for Walter Gibson.
The story features nearly all the characters you're familiar with. Lamont Cranston is The Shadow's alter ego. Also on hand are Harry Vincent, Hawkeye, Cliff Marsland, Burbank, Vic Marquette, Clyde Burke, Myra Reldon and Chance LeBrue. Notably absent are Moe Shrevnitz and Margo Lane. Taking Margo's place in the role of the female agent is Myra Reldon, in her effective disguise as the oriental Ming Dwan.
And then there's Chance LeBrue, an agent not often seen. He has a fairly large part in this story. As his history is briefly explained, he was a stunt car driver who gained his nickname "Chance" by driving cars through walls of fire and flame. The Shadow puts him to work when he needs a driver with reckless ability.
As in the Chinatown stories published in the Shadow Magazine back in the 1930's, the Orientals are portrayed as both antagonists and protagonists. Some are good guys; some are bad guys. But the bad ones are portrayed in a racist manner that harkens back to the "yellow peril" pulp stories of the twenties and thirties. And by today's standards, it can make the reader cringe.
The worst of the lot is Taka Takara, the assassin. He's not the hidden mastermind who controls all from behind the scenes. No, he's the face of evil that The Shadow battles upon multiple occasions. He is described as a creature that could not be classed as human. His flattish visage wears a lipless leer. His eyes are round and glassy like marbles. He has ugly jagged teeth with a viscous grin. It's a prejudiced view of a menacing killer that seems out of place in a 1948 story. The late forties were a more enlightened time than the early thirties, so it's surprising to find these stereotypes still being used.
The Shadow, as described in this story, is back in peak form. He moves with incredible stealth. He shoots with unerring accuracy. He fights with unwavering strength. He outsmarts even the most crafty adversary. He easily picks even the most difficult lock. He speaks Chinese flawlessly.
In an obvious tip-of-the-hat to the Shadow radio show, mention is made of Lamont Cranston's intensive training in auto-hypnosis among the Masters of Tibet. Nothing is said about the ability to "cloud men's minds so that they cannot see him," but it's fairly certain that fans of the radio version knew to what it referred.
Similarly, one passage describes Lamont Cranston as a "man-about-town" using the same description as that of the opening lines to the weekly radio show. By the time this story was published, The Shadow had been radio's invisible avenger for eleven years, and was among the most popular programs on the air. So it's not surprising to see some cross-over in descriptive language between the two versions of The Shadow.
The weak point of this story is that author Walter Gibson got too wordy. Since the editors at Street and Smith allowed him to expand the story to nearly 56,000 words in length, he seems to have gotten carried away with his long-winded descriptions. Admittedly, they do help add to the atmosphere, making the visits to foggy Chinatown very moody. But they also slow things down. It takes four chapters -- and four long chapters, at that -- to describe action which could have been effectively chronicled in two.
And the rest of the story has the same weakness. After you've finished reading it, you realize that not all that much really happened in such a long story. Certainly not enough to warrant the extra pages. To me, it seems that the story could have been edited down to a more typical 45,000 words without losing any plot details or atmosphere.
That's not to say this is a bad Shadow mystery. Actually it's pretty good. This story has a lot going for it. There are the typical Chinatown death traps that The Shadow must somehow overcome. There is the inhuman assassin that nearly gets the better of The Shadow. There are gun battles, fisticuffs, murders and plenty of mayhem. In many ways, it echoes some of the best Shadow stories of the prime years.
I'm sure readers back in 1948 really enjoyed it, especially after the two-year drought during which they were forced to read Bruce Elliott's stories. The Shadow of old had returned. Even today when viewed in hindsight, it's a darned good Shadow mystery. It has it's weaknesses, but it's still head-and-shoulders better than many that came before it.
This is a Shadow story you should read. You'll like it. I did.