John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #130
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"Hands in the Dark" was originally published in the May 1932 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Clutching, throttling, life-snatching hands, guided by a mastermind, mad for loot! Thrill to The Shadow’s adventures as he battles lone-handed against the tremendous forces of evil to whom even murder was no obstacle to massive wealth.
As with all the early Shadow stories, this one is a joy to read. But it does have its weaknesses. The ending of the mystery is all explained, but in a drab, uninvolved sort of way. It’s as though author Walter Gibson forgot to explain many of the fine points of the mystery, and a copy editor at Street & Smith hastily listed them, point by point, and gave them a cursory explanation. That shouldn’t take away from a very good Shadow story... but to some extent it does. With a little more care, this “very good” Shadow story could have been truly “great.”
One of the unique things about this Shadow magazine story is that the story actually begins on the magazine cover. Chapter one is printed right on the front cover along with a strange coded message. The reason for this has to do with how the publishers got paid for their magazines.
The policy was that newsstands could return any unsold magazines for a refund. And to save on shipping costs, they could simply tear off the front cover and return it as proof that the magazine was unsold. Some less-than-scrupulous magazine sellers began to rip the cover off the magazine and sell it as coverless... then return the cover for a refund. Quite a scam, at the time, and one that began to become too popular.
To thwart the growing trend, Street & Smith decided to start the story on the cover. Customers wouldn’t buy a coverless issue if the first chapter was missing, or so they figured. How successful this ploy actually was is unknown. But the publishers tried it only once, so that might be some indication.
The entire story revolves around a strange blood-red code that appears at the beginning of chapter one... and thus was on the cover. It’s a dead man’s message of strange characters etched in crimson hue. It’s the secret to Theodore Galvin’s wealth. But Theodore Galvin’s dead—died down in Paraguay—and Reynold Barker has broken into his study to search the secret drawer of the desk for the message. He finds it; he also finds death. Hands in the dark grasp his throat in a death grip.
Young Bob Galvin returns from South Africa where he’s lived for the past twenty years. He returns to the home of his uncle, Theodore Galvin. But crooked associates of Theodore Galvin want to get young Bob out of the way. They kidnap him, and replace him with an impostor. To the world at large, this is the true Bob Galvin, nephew of Theodore Galvin. But we know that shenanigans are afoot. We know that the real Bob is held prisoner while the fake Bob meets with Theodore Galvin’s friends in an effort to uncover the secret of the strange message and old Theodore’s wealth.
These crooks aren’t squeamish in the least. They aren’t above murder to get what they want. They just don’t kill the real Bob Galvin because they figure they can use him. But they aren’t so gentle to others. Take Hodgson, the old servant who had attended Theodore Galvin for years. He knows the real Bob Galvin, and so he must go. They smash his head. Again and again. He was dead by the fourth blow, but the evil impostor kept on and on until Hodgson’s head was a terrible sight.
And beautiful young Betty Mandell, old Theodore’s ward. She suspects Bob Galvin isn’t the true heir, so she’s locked in a sealed room that allows no air to enter. Sealed in the vault of doom. Another obstacle down.
Who’s behind it all? Certainly not the impostor Bob Galvin. He’s working for some unknown chief. It must be someone who knew old Theodore Galvin and was aware of his hidden crooked life. That and his hidden crooked wealth.
Could it be Hiram Mallory, one of Theodore Galvin’s oldest friends? He’s a quiet, kindly-faced old gentleman who still bears himself with youthful vigor. Maybe a bit too kindly? Or maybe middle-aged architect Richard Harkness. He’s a bachelor living in an obscure house on the fringe of Greenwich Village. He knows some of the secrets of Galvin’s old house. And there’s Thaddeus Westcott, another of Galvin’s old friends who holds part of the secret.
It’s up to The Shadow to track down the menace. It’s up to The Shadow to discover the hiding place of the illicit millions. It’s up to The Shadow to unveil the mastermind. It’s up to The Shadow to free young Bob Galvin and bring the evil syndicate to justice.
Assisting The Shadow in this story is Harry Vincent, who flies in from Asuncion, Paraguay, where he is following up leads on old Theodore Galvin’s death. Also assisting is Clyde Burke, now on the staff of the New York Classic. This is a new job for Clyde, who was previously running a news clipping bureau in last month’s story. I’m still not sure what happened with that job offer made by the Classic in “The Silent Seven.” First, he’s working for them... then he’s not... then he is again. Ah, the consistency of the old pulps! Gotta love it. Regardless, the Classic remained pretty much his permanent job for the rest of the magazine’s run. Burbank appears in his usual supporting role, although he is stationed doing stake-out duty and isn’t sequestered in his usual dismal room.
This being an early story in the magazine series’ run, there are no other agents in the story due to the fact that they hadn’t been introduced to the series, yet. Moe Shrevnitz, Hawkeye, Margo Lane, Jericho Druke, Miles Crofton... none of those would appear until later issues. And similarly, there is no sign of Detective Joe Cardona or Commissioner Ralph Weston. Instead, representing the forces of the law is a new character, Acting Inspector Herbert Zull, with his assistant Detective Crowell.
As for The Shadow, he briefly appears in several disguises. He is George Clarendon, a wealthy member of the Cobalt Club. Clarendon had appeared in “The Death Tower” four issues earlier. This was only his second reference, and also his last. The Shadow also appears as a waiter at the Cobalt Club, as a Mongolian guard in Chinatown and as an unnamed middle-aged man in a restaurant. Most of the time, he appears in his black garb without disguise.
As with most of the very early Shadow stories, mention is made of his weekly radio broadcasts. Reportedly, gangsters and detectives alike have surreptitiously sought to trace The Shadow through his radio broadcasts. But all have failed. The Shadow remains a mystery!
What would a Shadow story be without a trip to New York’s Chinatown. This time, it’s to the labyrinth of passages leading to the underground lair of Wing Toy, modernesque Tong leader, under whose regime the devastating wars of Chinatown had come to an abrupt ending. Toy has heard of The Shadow, when once, long ago, The Shadow had made trouble for some Chinese thugs. But nothing is mentioned of the name “Ying Ko” for which The Shadow was later said to be well known. Keep in mind that this was only Walter Gibson’s tenth Shadow story and that part of the mythos hadn’t been created yet.
It’s here that the story lets us down. The Shadow travels here to help the real Bob Galvin escape, and it made a perfect opportunity for some terrific scenes. But those opportunities were wasted. There’s a wonderful hidden room with trap doors and poison gas. But rather than using them to showcase The Shadow’s skills, they are very briefly shown. A lot of potential was wasted on that trip to Chinatown. Had Gibson filled out the scene properly, it could have gone a long way to elevate this story into the realm of the great Shadow stories.
Another weakness is in the handling of the damsel in distress. Betty Mandell has very few scenes, then is kidnapped. She is rescued by The Shadow and then just disappears for the rest of the story. The hasty wrap-up of the story does include brief mention that she’s glad the real Bob Galvin is back, but that’s all. I found her abbreviated part in the story very unsatisfying. Gibson could have easily fleshed it out and improved the story immensely.
It’s fairly well known that The Shadow’s face was never seen. In the very early stories, it was seen by others a few times, but was never clearly described. This is one of those few stories. And the description we get is one that was never used again... a green face! “A face came within the glare of the electric torch. It was the face of The Shadow—a solemn, monkish profile that shone a ghastly green as the light revealed it!” It sounds cool, but we are told no more. And in future Shadow magazine stories, the ghastly green of his face was never again mentioned.
It’s also well known that The Shadow carries a pair of .45 automatics. But in this story, for some unknown reason, he carries a revolver at the climax. “The Shadow pocketed the dead detective’s automatic and laid his own revolver in its place.” I suspect we can attribute that to the fact that this was still early in the series, and it was not yet considered canon.
But even with this early story, The Shadow is shown to wear a black cape with a crimson lining. That began on the magazine cover. The first time that The Shadow’s character was actually shown on the cover was in issue #5, “Gangdom’s Doom.” Until then, readers would see “a shadow” on the cover, but not “The Shadow.” The cover of issue #5 showed The Shadow, and his cloak had a crimson lining. This was actually not something originally written by Walter Gibson. He had it as a totally black cloak that helped The Shadow blend into the gloom. But it was an artist’s addition, to make the cover more colorful. And so Gibson was forced to add that crimson description to his stories as well. This was the third story in which the crimson lining was mentioned.
I did like this story. Although it doesn’t fill the ranks of the top 25 Shadow stories, it’s probably secure somewhere in the top 50. It contains unrealized potential, but even at that, it’s a fun Shadow story to read.
"Murder Marsh" was originally published in the October 1, 1934, issue of The Shadow Magazine. A mysterious mansion set on an island in the center of a foggy old marsh. There, scientists looked for the Ignis Fatuus, crooks looked for wealth, the Law sought criminals—and The Shadow stalked death in the Murder Marsh.
This early Shadow story is a real pip. I found it very enjoyable. And it helps make up for the somewhat tepid previous entry in the magazine series, “The Garaucan Swindle.” That one was a key story in the Shadow mythology, explaining why Commissioner Weston left the country. But the actual plot lacked some “oomph.” This one, “Murder Marsh” makes up for it. It’s got atmosphere; it’s got chills; it’s got action.
Most of the story takes place on the marshes outside the town of Rensdale. The first two chapters take place in Manhattan, where we learn about Thaddeus Culeth, a smooth crook—one of the smoothest in the business—and the dirtiest. He’s dead now, and his fortune in ill-gotten gains is hidden somewhere in the strange old house perched upon an island in the center of a weird marshland. But after this two-chapter introduction, we are taken to Rensdale, and the rest of the story centers around the old mansion located just out of town.
With Culeth dead, the entire estate is going to a distant relative—a young fellow named Hector Lundig—who never saw Thaddeus Culeth. Lundig isn’t interested in the place, and is anxious for a quick sale to anyone crazy enough to buy the old mansion. Up steps strange old Wildemar Brent. He’s a scientist looking for those mysterious marsh lights known as the ignis fatuus. Commonly known as the will-o’-the-wisp, it’s a pale, bluish-colored flame that is frequently seen in swampy places. He’s convinced that the house on the marsh is the perfect place from which to seek the ignis fatuus.
But before the sale can be completed, Lundig is murdered! Now a search for the next relative in line begins. And in the meantime, Wildemar Brent and his young niece, the beautiful, young Miss Dorothy Brent, continue to live in the house in the swamp. Every night, when the sun goes down, he goes out into the marsh, leaving her alone in the house. He sneaks into the mist, searching through the night fogs for the ignis fatuus. But all the while, someone is searching the house for old Thaddeus Culeth’s hidden treasure.
Murder strikes again! Detective Merle Cray is killed while investigating the death of young heir Hector Lundig. Strange footsteps are heard in the house. And strange tappings. Then another murder! This time, faithful old servant Twindell is killed. What’s behind the whole thing? Who is seeking the death of the inhabitants of the strange old mansion? Where is the hidden treasure? Why is the main door left unbolted in the middle of the night? How do mysterious figures secretly enter the mansion without detection? When will the next murder occur? These questions are all answered by that master detective, the mysterious cloaked figure who is master of the night, The Shadow!
One of my favorite gadgets appears in this story: those wonderful rubber suction cups which The Shadow attaches to his hands and feet to cling to the brick surface of a building. With their aid, he can climb the sheer outside walls of buildings or cling batlike to the surface of the brick. This time, The Shadow climbs the alleyway wall of the Hotel Spartan to cling outside a third story window and listen in on the conspiracy taking place inside. Pretty cool. Any time these disks appear in a story is worthy of note.
In this story, Clyde Burke appears in a small role. Harry Vincent appears in an even smaller role. Burbank makes a brief reference, as does Cliff Marsland. The law is not represented. Neither Joe Cardona nor Commissioner Weston (or his replacement Wainwright Barth) appear; similarly government agent Vic Marquette is absent. The only representative of the law might loosely be considered to be the detective Merle Cray. But he’s killed by mid-story.
The Shadow appears as himself and in a one-shot disguise—no others. There is no reference by Lamont Cranston, Kent Allard, Henry Arnaud or any of his other well-known disguises. When The Shadow shows up, its in his well-known cloak of black and slouch hat. And when he does, you know that action is impending. There’s gonna be some shootin’! There’s gonna be some action! And The Shadow’s gonna come out on top!
Although The Shadow doesn’t get to don one of his well-known disguises, he does get to appear in a new one. It’s pretty obvious from his first reference that the tall, owlish man with thick-lensed glasses is really The Shadow. So I’m not really spoiling the readers’ enjoyment here. He goes by the name of Professor Darwin Shelby, and he appears just before the half-way point of the story. He actually plays a fairly large role in the rest of the story, until he reveals himself at the climax of the tale.
We do get a visit to the sanctum, although an ever-so-brief one at the end of chapter two, just before the story moves to Rensdale. And we get to see Clyde Burke write to his chief in a strange code that looks like shorthand. The Shadow had lots of different codes in the various magazine stories. Most used standard alphabetical symbols, but this time, some non-standard symbols are used. Interesting.
And then there are the Dalwars. Who are they, you may ask? The Dalwars, at least according to this story, are a sect of hermits who prefer to avoid human contact. They don’t even associate with themselves. In this story, there are a bunch of Dalwars squatting in some cabins on the hillside above the foggy old swamp. They play a small but important role in the plot, giving Harry Vincent a place to hide out, and providing some suspicious activity as they skulk through the mist. From what I can tell, the Dalwars are strictly a fictional creation. There never was such a sect in actuality. Often times, author Walter Gibson would base his plot elements on real-life things and people. But apparently not in this case.
My favorite part is at the very end, after all the bad guys have been wiped up. The will-o’-the-wisp, which Wildemar Brent has been seeking for the entire mystery, finally appears. And from the midst of those wavering, mystic marsh lights steps The Shadow garbed in his black cloak and slouch hat. The lights form a luminous setting for his spectral shape. It’s quite breathtaking for both the reader and the characters in the story.
I know you’ll find this Shadow mystery quite as satisfying as I did. It’s a top-notch Shadow pulp novel, and I can give it a strong recommendation.