John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #126
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"The Scent of Death" was originally published in the June 1, 1940, issue of The Shadow Magazine. Beautiful golden carnations. The air was heavy with their fragrance of beauty, but only The Shadow knew it reeked of—death!
Yeah, this story reeks, all right. OK, that’s a bit harsh. The story doesn’t stink. It’s just... blah. That is to say, dull... plain-vanilla... unexciting. Author Walter Gibson tried to spice it up a bit, but to be honest, I found those attempts to be feeble and lacking. It’s a by-the-numbers Shadow mystery. Everything is nicely tied up at the end... at least I think it was. I had lost interest by then, and admittedly wasn’t paying very close attention. Something could have slipped past me.
Early on, readers realize that death somehow comes from beautiful aromatic roses. Special golden roses. I guess that explains the original title of the story, “Golden Death.” Street & Smith’s editors decided to change Gibson’s title to “The Scent of Death.” It didn’t help.
Our story all starts with five businessmen. And we suspect from the get-go that one of them is evil and the other four are destined to die. It’s kinda telegraphed from the very start. And, yup, we’re right, as usual! These five men hold equal claims, or options, on the North Star Mine. For a small sum of sixty thousand dollars, one month from now, each man can own a fifth share of the property. The mine is speculative. It’s not a proven gold producer, hence the low price. But one of them secretly knows that the mine has enormous potential. Someone who is willing to kill to get sole ownership of the mine. Someone who not only is willing, but able.
Let’s examine the five players in this little drama. Remember, one of them is a killer. Wilfred Angew is president of Angew & Co., importers. He’s a long-faced, baldish man with steely eyes who would stop at nothing. Including murder. Preston Marr is an automobile manufacturer. His grizzled hair gives him dignity; his square jaw marks him as forceful. Forceful enough to use the tactics of murder to gain his objectives. Hugo Brydan, a retired investment broker, is drab and dreary-faced, with listless manner and hesitant speech. Could he be hiding the heart of a soulless murderer? Old Austin Delmont, his face withery and bony, had taken over the task of raising beautiful young Patricia after her parents had died. Perhaps his generous exterior covers a greedy and black interior; one capable of murder. Finally, there’s Philip Kreft, the handsome young one of the group. He’s in love with Delmont’s young ward Patricia. But there’s something sinister about him. And he always wears a small golden carnation in his lapel. Hmmm...
Golden carnations play an important part in this story. Not only is one worn by Philip Kreft, but bouquets of the rare imported flowers keep popping up throughout the story. And those who smell their entrancing aroma die. Not all of them. Oh, no. Some smell them and live. But a few die. A few smell them and soon after fall dead. The important few, by coincidence. Yeah, what a coincidence!
First to die is wealthy Preston Marr. He’s holding a party at his Long Island home, and golden carnations are delivered. Everyone is intrigued by their fragrance. With long-drawn breaths, they inhale the aroma of the strange golden carnations. But from all those present, only one dies mysteriously. Preston Marr is the victim.
Second to die is Wilfred Angew. This time, there are clues. Clues which The Shadow will examine. Clues which can lead The Shadow to the source of the evil. Clues which will reveal the murder. Clues which will prevent the next murders. Clues which will clear the mystery of the golden carnations. Clues which will explain the scent of death!
And when the story ends, what exactly explains the scent of death? It’s a lame, and rather vague, explanation about a combination of odors. The scent of the carnations mixed with the scent of ether. That’s what kills folks. Do all carnations react thus? No. It appears these are special carnations “grafted with a venomous tropical plant.” Ah, don’t you just love the pulpy, but non-specific, explanations of these stories?
This pulp tale has the special Gibson touch when it comes to characters’ names. We have Herkshire, Morry Cathlan, Koko Yandel and Goo-goo Jaffer. Gibson did love to go with the unusual names, and this story is a good example.
One interesting point in this story is the hoodlum mentioned above, known as Goo-goo Jaffer. He’s a clever con man who poses as a woman. He has various disguises. An old woman. A young woman. From the descriptions, he’s pretty good at it, too! And enjoys it. I think this is the only Shadow story that featured a cross-dresser. I tried to figure out what plot elements drove that choice in characterizations, but couldn’t find any. There’s really no reason for including a man who likes to dress as women, from a plot standpoint. But, there it is...
So who’s here, this time around? Regular characters in this story include Police Commissioner Ralph Weston, Inspector Joe Cardona, Harry Vincent, Cliff Marsland, Moe Shrevnitz and Burbank. Oh, and Stanley, the chauffeur. The Shadow appears in his oft-used Cranston disguise, but no others.
In this story we are reminded that The Shadow uses a flashlight with colored lenses to signal to his agents. “Another flashlight blinked from the alley’s mouth. Its glow was a tiny speck of red; a warning. As they waited, the agents saw the tiny light again. This time, its spot was green. A signal for their approach.” This was used a lot throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s.
We are also reminded that The Shadow drives a sporty roadster that he often uses when he travels as Cranston. And we learn that there is a hidden button behind the front seat. A simple push and he can scoop a gun into his hand. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work, although it fails this time. And as a result, The Shadow crashes the roadster and sustains a concussion.
Speaking of concussions, our hero sure sees a lot of those in the eighteen years of magazine adventures. And so do his agents. They are always getting slugged over the head with the butt of a revolver. Struck by falling, flaming timbers. Caught in explosions. It’s to the point that I’m convinced they all suffered from traumatic brain injuries. Remember, these guys didn’t even wear helmets. “Everything that The Shadow saw was partial, and he couldn’t understand why. It was always that way after a hard jolt that brought a brain concussion. The Shadow had been through the very same experience before, but he could not remember it.” All this and no health insurance. Being a crime-fighter back in the 1930s wasn’t easy!
Although this story is certainly nothing special, that’s no reason to avoid it. It’s not bad... at least, not really bad. It’s just dull. Just don’t expect anything noteworthy. You may find yourself going back and re-reading sections, because your numbed brain fell asleep and you missed something. I know I did.
"The Chinese Primrose" was originally published in the February 15, 1941, issue of The Shadow Magazine. The tiny Oriental flower could mean fortune or death to the one who wore it. The Shadow had to risk his life to solve its riddle!
The Shadow’s Chinatown adventures are some of the best of the entire pulp series. The very first novel, “The Living Shadow,” had some terrific scenes in Chinatown. Many succeeding pulp stories had entire chapters set in Chinatown, and it was always thrilling to see The Shadow evade nasty death traps and make his way through twisty underground mazes. Sometimes, the whole pulp adventure was set in Chinatown. Titles such as “Green Eyes” and “The Living Joss” were fully immersed in the Oriental mystique of Chinatown. Faithful readers of The Shadow Magazine looked forward to these visits.
“The Chinese Primrose” is entirely set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and had the potential to be a wonderful tale of Asian intrigue. But somehow, that potential was not realized. The story falls strangely flat. It lacks the excitement and thrills of many of Walter Gibson’s earlier works. It’s not a bad story; it’s a respectable Shadow mystery. But it could have been so much more. By 1941, the Shadow stories had become a bit too tame by my standards, and this pulp tale suffers from that same lack of enthusiasm.
The plot centers around a jewelry smuggling racket. The Chinese primrose of the title refers to the method of identifying the courier who will transport the stolen jewelry to the fence who holds the purloined goods. It’s by this mysterious Oriental flower that members of a San Francisco smuggling racket can recognize each other. The red Chinese primrose! Whoever wears this flower in his lapel will receive the stolen jewels coming in from China.
Wealthy Felix Mandore, living in a mansion on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, has arranged for the smuggled Chinese jewelry to enter this country and be passed off to his associate Elredge Brend. Brend sends a messenger to the Hong Kong Shop wearing the secret signal, the Chinese primrose in his lapel. The proprietor of the Hong Kong Shop then sells the smuggled piece of jewelry to the messenger cheaply, allegedly a piece of junk jewelry, but in reality worth many thousands of dollars.
It’s a great plan that goes wrong when beautiful young Paula Rayle enters the shop wearing, by accident, a Chinese primrose. She is given the long-lost necklace of the Empress Dowager, the imperial symbol of the Manchu dynasty. And this fabulous treasure must be reclaimed!
There are two opposing forces out to get the necklace back. One is Felix Mandore and his associates. The other is the vile Li Husang, ex-pirate who used to prey on coastwise vessels over in the China Sea. Li Husang intends to marry the Princess Mei Luan, a descendant of the Empress Dowager. As the consort of Mei Luan, Li Husang could become the ruler of East China. But to marry Mei Luan, Li Husang must restore the priceless heirloom to her. She could then refuse him nothing, even her hand in marriage.
Into this volatile situation enters a third party also seeking the necklace: The Shadow! Talk of a mysterious stir in San Francisco’s Chinatown, confined to certain Chinese of whom but little was known, had been enough to bring The Shadow to this city of the Golden Gate. And now that he’s here, it doesn’t take him long to discover the reason for the unrest. It becomes his task to find the necklace and return it to Mei Luan, thus thwarting Li Husang’s vile plans.
Aiding The Shadow in his quest is his most trusted aide, Harry Vincent, and his old friend Dr. Roy Tam. The three set out to brave the perils of San Francisco’s Chinatown, storm the lair of Li Husang, rip the mask of innocence from Felix Mandore, rescue Paula Rayle and the princess Mei Luan, and return the symbol of power, the long-lost necklace, to its rightful owner. Wow! What a task!
The Shadow is known to the Chinese as “Ying Ko” here, which is how they began referring to him in “The Fate Joss” in 1935. No matter if in New York or San Francisco, all Chinese know Ying Ko!
It would seem, from this story, that Dr. Roy Tam has taken up residence in San Francisco. At least, he’s moved his entire family there. When The Shadow rescues Paula Rayle, he takes her to Dr. Tam’s home where she can stay in safety until the case is concluded. The readers are told that she meets Dr. Roy Tam, his wife and his children “of assorted sizes.” Do you suppose he takes the entire family on every assignment, wherever it takes him?
There are few racial slurs in this story, perhaps because such aspersions were less popular when the country of China was currently in sympathetic news stories of the day. The story was from 1941 and at this juncture in history China had been invaded by Japan, and some Americans were volunteering in China’s struggle. So although author Walter Gibson still described “snaky Chinamen”, its comments were less blatant than one would find in the 1930s tales.
This story mentions the habit that Chinese had of keeping an empty chamber next to their gun hammer, thus requiring two trigger tugs before their guns could be fired. Apparently this was a safety precaution. This habit has been mentioned in other Shadow novels, which makes one wonder if it is indeed grounded in fact. I do know that the practice was common in the Old West among cowboys. I credit my friend Art Ferranti for the tidbit of information. Was the habit also true of the Chinese or was Walter Gibson stretching facts a bit, as he was wont to do?
An interesting event takes place in this story, which I’ve never seen before. During a heated gun-battle, The Shadow aims directly for Harry’s heart! He anticipated his bullet would never reach its target, the knife-carrying wrist of a Chinese opponent would intervene by the time the bullet arrived. And indeed it did; the bullet struck the wrist and Harry was unscathed. But, what a chance he was taking! Whew!
In various Shadow stories, The Shadow uses a flashlight with colored lenses to flash coded messages to his agents. It shows up here, as he flashes a green blink to signal Harry Vincent to watch the hall. Then later, a red blink indicates that Harry should watch the balconies. In every story, the colors had different significances. Each was apparently determined by the current situation.
The Shadow’s knowledge seems surprisingly vast. In this story he indicates a mastery of horticulture. He discusses the differences between the primula sinensis and the primula obconica, varieties of the Chinese Primrose. And although the difference may be lost upon the reader at the time, it later becomes a significant plot device.
A passing comment in this pulp mystery indicates that The Shadow is still currently engaging new agents. In one scene, Harry wonders if his cab driver might be another agent of The Shadow. “But Harry knew The Shadow’s system of obtaining new recruits and breaking them into service gradually.” It turns out he’s just some stranger, but it’s still nice to see the fact acknowledged that The Shadow is still looking for a few good agents.
It’s interesting to note that The Shadow lets one small-time crook go. James Alban is one of the couriers of the jewelry smuggling ring. After being captured by The Shadow, he’s convinced to leave town and go straight. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he earlier helped save Harry’s life. So The Shadow lets him go. It’s not often that happens.
There are a few loose plot threads in this pulp story. After Paula Rayle leaves the Chinese curio shop with the emerald necklace, she is attacked by the men of Li Husang in her hotel suite. That part makes sense; she has the necklace he desperately wants. But readers are told that “Those men from Li Husang had not come merely to regain the necklace; they had also been intent upon murdering Paula.” There is no explanation why they should want her dead. She knew nothing; she was no threat to them.
Another loose plot thread is that of the “real” Howard Kemper. Kemper was an out-of-town courier that Harry chose to impersonate, since no one knew him personally. We’re told that The Shadow takes care of the real Kemper. But how? All readers know is from one small paragraph where a groggy man sits slumped in a chair with The Shadow standing beside him. What does The Shadow do with him? We are never told. Another mystery, the answer of which is known only to The Shadow.
I enjoyed this story, yet at the same time I didn’t feel compelled to keep reading. The sign of a good Shadow mystery is one that’s hard to put down, and this one fails in that regard. In fact, it gave me a yearning to read one of the earlier Chinatown stories like “The Chinese Disks” or “The Fate Joss.” It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes those stories so amazing and this 1941 novel so lifeless. But, sad to say, it’s just not up to the earlier standards.
The story is definitely worth reading. And perhaps you’ll find you enjoy it more than I did. I hope so.