John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #121
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"Hidden Death" was originally published in the September 1932 issue of The Shadow Magazine. A brazen killer taunts the forces of the law, flouting his heinous murders before their very eyes. But the malevolent evil will be avenged by the mystery man in black... The Shadow!
Here's another fun story from the early years of The Shadow. Its The Shadow at his blood-loosing best. No shooting to wound, here, no sir! It's a well-written story with no major plot flaws. Everything's nicely tied up in the end, which is important in a pulp mystery. And, as a bonus, we get to see the introduction of Commissioner Weston to the magazine series. While not the very best that the series has to offer, this story still ranks high on the list and is one you should definitely read.
As our story opens, a madman is on the loose, and it's up to Cardona to track him down. First killed is Silas Harshaw, an old inventor who is mysteriously shot through the heart in his apartment. The following day, a letter arrives at police headquarters saying: "IN MEMORY OF S.H. WHO DIED LAST NIGHT. HE WAS THE FIRST." Cardona knows that means he won't be the last.
There are more to die. Next is Louis Glenn, a man who is found dead in his taxi from unknown causes. Another letter is delivered to the police: "IN MEMORY OF L.G. WHO DIED LAST NIGHT. HE WAS THE SECOND."
Who is this fiend who kills seemingly at random? Why does he taunt the police with his despicable crimes? How many more will die before he can be caught? What is the secret behind the delivery of the letters, right under the noses of the police? Lots of questions! But only one man - one super man - can find the answers. And that man - that master of the night - is The Shadow!
As mentioned earlier, this is the story that introduced Police Commissioner Ralph Weston to the series. As this story opens, Commissioner Weston has been recently appointed to the post, and is meeting his ace detective, Joe Cardona. Weston has decided that he wants to hear nothing about this mysterious character known as The Shadow!
Commissioner Weston believes that most of the stories about The Shadow are myths. And the few that have basis in fact are in actuality different random unidentified people. Figuring that a single person with all the amazing abilities attributed to The Shadow can only be regarded as an impossibility, he orders Cardona to avoid any further references to The Shadow. Unless, of course, Cardona can actually prove The Shadow exists.
The Shadow is known to even Commissioner Weston as a radio announcer. Weston doesn't deny that his voice is heard over the radio every week. He just denies that there's any connection between the radio announcer and some unknown mysterious crime fighter. And in 1932, in actuality, The Shadow was a radio announcer. The radio broadcasts featuring the adventures of The Shadow were years yet in the future. At this point in time, The Shadow was just the name for the narrator of stories taken from Street and Smith's detective pulps. The pulp stories and the radio broadcasts recognized each others' existence and helped promote each other.
The Shadow appears in this story as his black-garbed self for most of the time. He briefly appears as millionaire Lamont Cranston and also as the police station janitor Fritz. Remember, in these stories there were actually a Fritz and Lamont Cranston. The Shadow just dresses up in disguise and takes their place when he desires to use their persona. Also making brief appearances are Burbank and Harry Vincent. Commissioner Ralph Weston and Detective Joe Cardona play large parts in this story, and good old Detective Sergeant Mayhew, a bit-player in the series, shows up.
The Black Ship, that underworld hangout and speakeasy, appears here. Harry Vincent takes a trip there on orders from his master, The Shadow. He's under cover, and falls into peril. It makes for a very nice chapter at one of my favorite criminal haunts. The Black Ship appeared in two dozen of the magazine stories, all told. And this was its third appearance. But no mention of Red Mike, its proprietor of the florid face.
We all know from the many Shadow novels that The Shadow is the master of many languages. In this one, he effortlessly reads Turkish. I'm not keeping track of all the languages he knows, but there sure is a bunch!
In this story, we're told that The Shadow carries special master keys made of thin steel and painted black. That's so that when he's picking a lock to gain secret entry, no one will see any sign of him. His black cloak covers him in darkness. His slouch hat is pulled down so that nothing of his face can be seen. He wears black gloves so that his white hands won't show in the dark. And the master keys are black so that not even the slightest glint will penetrate the darkness.
The famous suction cups that allow The Shadow to cling to the sheer outside walls of buildings are used here for the second time. They were first mentioned in THE CRIME CULT two months earlier. They aren't described in much detail, but it's good to see them in use again. In this tale, he uses them to slide down a building wall into the black safety of an alleyway.
One of the key plot devices involves the hiding place of the dead inventor's secret plans. I won't tell you where they were hidden, but I will say that I wasn't surprised at all. I had seen the same idea used in the old Abbott and Costello movie, "Hold That Ghost." Since this story precedes the movie by nine years, obviously Walter Gibson didn't steal the idea from the movie. Did Abbott and Costello steal the idea from Gibson? Or did they both steal it from some earlier source? I don't know...
I think you'll find this a most worthwhile Shadow story to read. You'll meet Commissioner Weston for the first time, and you'll adventure along with The Shadow in another thrilling pulp mystery. Spend five or six hours reading this one. You'll find it most rewarding.
"The Shadow Meets The Mask" was originally published in the October 1944 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Crimes are being committed in Manhattan—crimes committed by a strange figure that just might be The Shadow. Now the black cloaked master of the night must find that figure that some call The Mask and others call The Shadow, in order to demonstrate his innocence.
It’s a pretty lame story; you might as well know that up front. Here’s a quick summary. The wall safe belonging to Rufus Howland is being burgled as our story opens. The criminal wears a bandanna over his face. As he makes good his escape, he is spied by the butler. Later, under police interrogation, the butler admits he didn’t see the figure clearly, only his shadow. Well, that’s good enough for Commissioner Weston. Word goes out that The Shadow may have turned to crime.
The rest of the story, which is mercifully short at 33,000 words, is all about The Shadow’s efforts to clear himself. He’s hampered by a crusading radio commentator by the name of Ron Meldor, who harangues every night on his half-hour WVX radio show, putting pressure on the police for inaction, and accusing The Shadow of being a criminal. And from the get-go, it seems pretty obvious to even the most casual reader that this Ron Meldor must be involved in the whole criminal conspiracy.
Yes, from the beginning, there are red flags that point the reader to the broadcaster Ron Meldor. Whenever great pains are taken to point out that someone has an unshakable alibi, readers get suspicious. And that’s what happens here. That annoys me. Usually, author Walter Gibson was more subtle than that.
Here we have Ron Meldor, self-styled “Citizen of Justice,” who broadcasts nightly from ten until ten-thirty in his private hotel-room studio. For that half hour, he prefers to work in isolation. So for that time period, people hear his voice but don’t actually see him. And, wouldn’t you know it, all the crimes conveniently take place in that half hour window. And all in the neighborhood surrounding Meldor’s hotel. Gee, what a coincidence!
Were readers back in 1944 really so innocent that they wouldn’t consider that Meldor was using a recording of his voice to go out over the air, while he snuck out of the hotel? I know technology has come a long way since 1944, and today we take voice recording for granted. But certainly people back then weren’t that dumb. True, major network broadcasts were all done live, and listeners took that for granted. But they also knew about transcribed recordings, shows either syndicated or delayed for later broadcast. So why did no one even once suspect Meldor was not broadcasting live? Pretty lame.
Walter Gibson had used the exact same trick in the 1936 story “Intimidation, Inc.” A broadcaster used a recording to give himself an alibi. That’s pretty sloppy writing, Mr. Gibson. I’m sure he was banking on the fact that any readers who had been around eight years earlier and had read “Intimidation, Inc.” had forgotten the trick alibi. But I’m confident that such is not the case, and that there were readers out there crying “foul!”
When Walter Gibson makes such a big deal about Ron Meldor having an “iron clad” alibi during the time when the crimes take place, it seems like he almost wants us to figure out in advance that Meldor is the true criminal. It didn’t fool me for an instant, and I can’t imagine it fooling too many readers back in 1944 either.
Another annoying thing about this story is that Walter Gibson doesn’t give Ron Meldor any interesting way to sneak out of his hotel room during the fake broadcasts. He just opens the hallway door and leaves. Yes, he just walks down the hallway and exits the building. And surprisingly, no one sees him. No one notices that he’s out of his room, while his voice continues over the air. Oh come on! At least Gibson could have given him a secret passage to use in exiting his recording studio. Or something that wouldn’t depend on sheer chance that he doesn’t get caught. Sheesh!
The story concludes in what is supposed to be a twist ending. Maybe it was supposed to be clever, but it left me feeling confused. I’m going to go ahead and describe it here. That might spoil it for some of you who plan on reading the pulp story, but the story isn’t worth much to start with. So, there’s not much to spoil. Regardless, you can skip the next few paragraphs, if you really want to.
In the end, it turns out that there were two men masquerading as “The Mask.” Yes, two villains. And this is where it gets confusing. Apparently, neither was aware of the other. It seems, by strange coincidence, each chose the same targets of crime on the same nights, and then when they ran into each other, they never actually saw each other clearly enough to identify who they were seeing. So each assumed his adversary was The Shadow. And that’s the twist ending. Two Masks. All I can say is... Huh?
Up until the twist ending was revealed, I was wondering why The Mask was given such a tame and nondescript title. Seems like if you’re going to go to the trouble of writing a story around an evil character known as “The Mask” then at least give him an interesting mask to wear. But a simple bandanna? Oh come on! Ninety percent of the cheap hoods in New York at that time wore bandannas across their faces. How common. The rest of Manhattan’s crooks didn’t start calling themselves “The Mask”, too, for the simple reason that there was nothing noteworthy about their face covering.
I figured that Gibson should have given this villain a unique mask. Of course once the twist ending was revealed, it was obvious why the villain wasn’t given a unique mask. Two villains wouldn’t pick the same unique mask just by accident, hence it had to be generic. But I do fault Gibson on not picking a better name for his villain. He could easily have picked something that would apply to two criminals as well as one. Maybe “The Phantom” or “Mr. X” or something. But “The Mask?” Sorry, that just doesn’t cut it.
END OF SPOILER
And then there’s the separate matter of The Shadow being accused of these crimes. Commissioner Weston is way too easy to convince that it’s The Shadow behind the thefts, with absolutely no evidence. After the first robbery, the butler is asked to describe the safecracker. He responds that he didn’t see him directly, just his shadow. And that’s all it takes for Commissioner Weston to blurt out “He’s turned to crime! The Shadow!”
Such a quick judgment makes no sense. After thirteen years of The Shadow fighting crime, after two-hundred eighty-three pulp magazine stories in which The Shadow assists the police, after multiple stories where Commissioner Weston’s life is saved by The Shadow, after time and time again when Weston actually meets The Shadow face to face... all it takes is one witness describing a shadow, and the commissioner is convinced that The Shadow has turned to crime. Say what?
I will say this, for him. He doesn’t turn out the entire police force to track down The Shadow. But as the story unfolds, Weston becomes more and more suspicious. After years of evidence that The Shadow is on the side of the law, this is all it takes to cause doubt in his mind? That just doesn’t make sense.
Yes, this story really annoys me. There are so many things in it that could have been so much better with very little effort. And then there are things in the plot that just don’t make sense. It’s as though author Walter Gibson was just going through the motions on autopilot.
Another annoying thing about this story is that The Shadow never gets to shoot anybody. Gibson lets him try, but he’s always thwarted for some reason. There’s always some convenient intervention that keeps him from shooting. Or if he shoots, there’s always something that gets in the way of his bullet. It all makes for a singularly bloodless story; a somewhat anemic and dull story to boot!
Another gross error that Gibson made in his plotting of this story is the technical aspect of the fake broadcasts. Ron Meldor is out running around committing crimes during his nightly half-hour broadcast, while a transcription of his voice plays back in his hotel-room radio studio. Or so Gibson claims. But Gibson should have known, as today we also know, that transcription discs playing at 33? rpm could only contain fifteen minutes of material. There’s no way Meldor could have fooled the public; the record would have run out half-way through the show. Meldor worked alone; there was no one else to change the record. There was no mention of an automated device doing it. In fact, the story plainly states that “beside the mike was a turntable; revolving upon it was a large phonograph record.”
In one scene, Meldor returned just before the end of fifteen minutes, and his hand hovers above the tonearm ready to pick it up. I figured that Gibson finally got it right. But then Meldor is distracted, and the action starts coming fast and furious, and he never gets around to changing the record. While he’s chasing around, the voice on the radio just keep talking and talking for the entire half hour. How annoying that Gibson didn’t get it right. And such a simple thing!
One thing that I did appreciate was the mention of the Crossley ratings. It’s a reference that some readers today will recognize, but many others won’t catch. That was the rating service back during radio’s heyday. It’s like talking about Neilson ratings on today’s television shows. It was nice to see it mentioned.
By the time of these 1944 pulp novels, the length of each story was shorter. And the cast was streamlined. In this one, we have taxi driver Shrevvy (who used to be called “Moe Shrevnitz” but somehow ended up with this degrading nickname), reporter Clyde Burke and socialite Margo Lane. And as usual, Commissioner Ralph Weston and Inspector Joe Cardona appear. The Shadow appears as Lamont Cranston, in addition to his normal cloaked self. There’s no mention of the “other” Cranston; it’s as though The Shadow and Cranston are one and the same.
One point of interest is that Lamont Cranston and Joe Cardona have dinner together. And it’s pointed out that this is the first time they’ve dined together. In earlier stories, they began as strangers. Then Cardona knew Cranston only as a friend of the Commissioner. Gradually, Cardona got to know Cranston better, and in future years, would become a much closer friend to Cranston. So this story marks an evolutionary moment in that friendship.
And for my final annoyance, they had already used this story title three years earlier. Yes, there were actually two different stories that used this title. The title “The Shadow Meets The Mask” was first used for a story published in the August 15, 1941, issue of The Shadow Magazine. Then three years later, this other story with the same title was published in the October 1944 issue. These are two totally different stories that have no relation to each other. But someone at Street & Smith didn’t cross check the titles in 1944, and didn’t notice that this title had been used previously in 1941. So the this title was inadvertently used twice.
Walter Gibson was not at the top of his game when he wrote this story. What could he have been thinking? It’s often said, and rightly so, that The Shadow Magazine stories of the 1940s paled before those of the 1930s. And this particular story is a prime example of that. My, how far it has fallen!