John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #23
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with
"Smugglers of Death" was published in the June 1, 1939 issue of The Shadow Magazine. They're
smuggling diamonds! Sapphires and rubies! Gems of all sort brought from
overseas. And along with the raw jewels comes death. The Shadow dips his hands
in the pile of wealth and comes up with a murderer.
At the beginning of our story, The Shadow overhears Spike Hegley's phone
conversation with a mysterious master criminal who has ordered henchmen placed
on the speedy cabin cruiser The Flyaway. The Flyaway is a getaway ship for
smugglers, and the unknown villain has plans to thwart the smugglers' plans and
reap the wealth for himself.
Coming in from Europe is the steamship Albania. Aboard is gentlemen adventurer
Michael Waybrock, smuggling in a large amount of illicit gems. His plan is to
bypass customs by jumping ship as it approaches the coastline. The small yacht
The Flyaway will pick him up along with his treasure, and spirit him into the
country to Mariner's Isle off the shore of Long Island Sound. At least, that's
But the mysterious mastermind has other plans. His henchmen will take over the
crew of the Flyaway and seize the jewels. Waybrock gets wind of the plans and
tries to find an alternate method of getting the jewels into the country. He
strikes up a shipboard friendship with young Myrna Elvin in the hopes of
convincing her to carry his package through customs. But things go awry.
Waybrock is killed on the ship before he gets a chance to transfer the package
to Myrna. Frenchy Brenn, a name familiar with The Shadow, assisted by the evil
Leona Dubray, shoves a knife through Waybrock's heart and leaves him outside
innocent young Myrna Elvin's stateroom.
Frenchy Brenn jumps overboard with the cache of gems and makes his way to the
Flyaway. He successfully makes his way into the country with the illicit gems
after a wild battle onboard The Flyaway. Another smuggling job successfully
The Shadow must track down the hidden brain behind the smuggling racket. The
Shadow must thwart the killers out to get Myrna Elvin. The Shadow must find who
is recutting the stones so that they can't be traced. The Shadow must stop the
traffic in smuggled gems. Yes, he's going to be a very busy guy!
But The Shadow has plenty of help. Beautiful young Myrna Elvin joins forces with
The Shadow to act as one of his agents. She's a plucky and determined young lady
who does a very competent job. And also assisting are The Shadow's most trusted
agents. Harry Vincent teams up with Myrna Elvin. Moe Shrevnitz again helps with
trailing taxicabs. Hawkeye is on the job, trailing suspects without any telltale
signs. And of course contact man Burbank keeps communication between everyone
Representing the forces of law and order are Police Commissioner Ralph Weston
and Inspector Joe Cardona. Also joining in this mystery is Vic Marquette,
Federal operative. Smuggling valuable gems into the country is a federal crime,
The Shadow gets not only to appear in his usual garb of black, but also as
celebrated globetrotter Lamont Cranston. And several times he appears posing as
a Bowrey bum, as well. He does love his disguises.
We learn some interesting things about The Shadow in this story. His ability to
imitate voices is used several times to convince people over the phone that he
is Commissioner Weston. Cardona falls for the trick with assuring reliability.
He can always be counted on to fall for that one when needed.
And The Shadow seems to have a steel plate in his head. When shot by a thug,
"the slug slid along his skull like it had hit a chunk of armor plate!" Could
this have been the relic of some old war wound? Or did he just get lucky...
again? (Why am I getting visions of refrigerator magnets clinging to his
We get to see The Shadow's autogiro briefly in this mystery, as it lands on the
steamship Albania. An alleged "shore to sea" test, it is in reality a way to
sneak The Shadow aboard the ship.
In Cranston's limo, there is a short-wave radio. We've seen that several times
before. In this story, it's claimed that The Shadow's voice passes through a
special mixer that makes it "unintelligible to any listener except the
designated receiver." Pretty cool idea, if you ask me!
We are given a bit more insight into the lockpicks used by The Shadow. In
addition to his set of oddly-shaped picks and tweezer-like instruments, he has a
special skeleton key. Ever wonder how he opens those locks so silently? It's
explained that this special skeleton key delivers drops of oil from its hollow
interior, making his lockwork totally silent.
We also get to see inside the "other" room in The Shadow's sanctum, the
laboratory. There, The Shadow uses a special heat treatment on some zircons
which temporarily clears their color and gives them the luster of true diamonds.
Enough so to fool even experts, so it is claimed. Does such a treatment exists,
or is this just fiction?
We get to see a rare example of a female villain. Most of the women in Walter
Gibson's Shadow stories were innocent. But occasionally he threw in an evil
woman. Leona Dubray is one such woman. On board the Albania, she cold-bloodedly
shoots a steward in the back, killing him.
You figure she ought to be brought to justice by the end of the story. But
Gibson keeps her fate rather vague. When last seen, she is in police custody,
convincing them she knows nothing of the mastermind. They know nothing of the
murder she committed. So does she get away with it? Unfortunately, we are never
It all makes for a rousing fun Shadow mystery.
"The Blackmail King"
was originally published in the November 1, 1941 issue of The Shadow Magazine. In a battle to gain possession of an amazing new invention, Giles Brett is about to fall into a web of blackmail that will tax even The Shadow's amazing abilities!
This story was published just shortly before America was to enter into World War II, and there is brief mention in this story of Fifth Column activities. So even though not officially at war, yet, apparently there were subversives at work within the country attempting to weaken the nation which was preparing for war. But the war is really not the focus of this story. Only passing mention is made of the war and the invention which serves as the original reason for blackmail.
The MacGuffin in this story is a cold light invention named Infralux. MacGuffin, by the way, is a term popularized by filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. It refers to a plot device which serves to give motivation to the characters, but which by itself plays an extremely minor role in the story. And that's Infralux. The invention appears at the beginning of the story and then disappears once it has served its purpose. It serves as motivation for the blackmail and subsequent plot twists, so we don't need to learn much about it. And that's too bad, because it's an intriguing concept.
All we know about Infralux is that it is a gelatinous substance that fills a standard appearing light bulb. With an exceedingly small amount of electricity, the bulb will glow the the intensity of a forty-watt bulb. Apparently it is a synthetic substance based on the bioluminescence of the firefly. A character in this story refers to it as "bottled light." And since it produces light without heat, only slight electrical current is needed to create that light. The fluorescent light bulb was developed in the late 1930's, and may have provided author Walter Gibson with inspiration for the idea. Coincidentally enough, General Electric patented a practical fluorescent lamp in 1941, the same year this story was published.
The story, itself, it a lot less interesting than the invention which drives it. It begins with an interesting plot twist, but then settles down into a pretty standard Shadow mystery. That's not to say it's a bad story. Nor is it a good story. It's a very respectable Shadow tale, but really nothing inspired.
As the story opens, we learn that Giles Brett is developing a new light bulb called Infralux that puts out cold light of enormous brightness with very little power. It was invented by eccentric old Dana Mycroft, who now claims Brett cheated him when he bought the rights for only twenty-five thousand dollars. Brett's not surprised at the spurious claim, because Mycroft is a crazy old coot.
He is surprised, however, when he looks up from his desk to see himself. A duplicate of himself stands before him, demanding blackmail money; and this fake Brett has forged enough evidence against him to make it stick! That's the unique plot twist mentioned above. Giles Brett is being blackmailed by himself!
The fake Brett shows the real Brett some photographs of Brett seated at a table with a notorious character who was recently indicted for Fifth Column activities. Brett knows that if the F.B.I. should be shown these photographs, he would be placed under suspicion and would undoubtedly lose his government contracts for producing war materials. If the photographs should be made public, he would be ruined.
The photographs are phony, of course. It's not actually Brett in those photos. It's his double, the man standing before him demanding money. Back in the 1940s, long before the days of Photoshop, photographs couldn't be easily faked. So it took a man's double to create a bogus picture. And this man is a spitting image of the real Giles Brett.
The real Brett is never one to be intimidated. He challenges the phony. In the ensuing fight, the fake Brett is shot and killed. Quick to the uptake, the real Brett decides to disappear and let the fake Brett be found as an apparent suicide. With everyone thinking the real Brett dead, this leaves him free to find the mastermind behind the blackmail attempt.
The double, who now lies dead in Brett's office, wasn't the mastermind. Brett knows that crazy old Dana Mycroft, the inventor of Infralux, is behind the scheme. It's his way of getting the money he believes he was cheated out of. So Brett figures if he plays dead, he can track down the elusive inventor. If believed dead, he can't be blackmailed.
Brett sends his headstrong young daughter Sandra out of town while he practices his undercover investigations. But although she agrees to leave, she returns to Manhattan soon afterward, in order to begin her own investigations into the identity of her father's blackmailer.
To keep tabs on Sandra Brett, The Shadow calls in Margo Lane. And Margo plays an important role in this story. Soon she's mistaken for Sandra Brett and is kidnapped by Mycroft. What follows is an thrill-ride through the underworld as The Shadow speeds to rescue Margo and thwart The Blackmail King.
Margo Lane had been introduced to the pulp magazine series only five months earlier. She gets to see plenty of action in this story. She is a strong, capable agent of The Shadow who can sleuth and fight along with the rest of his crew. She's their equal; she even saves The Shadow's life from a deadly bomb. And at the story's end, she grabs up a pistol and takes part in a gun-battle. It isn't often that Margo gets to wield a gun, so it's worthy of note. Yes, the Margo Lane in this story isn't the weak damsel-in-distress that readers often mistake her for.
Also in this story are agents Burbank, Harry Vincent and Moe Shrevnitz. Yes, Moe is now referred to as "Shrevvy" which is typical of most stories which feature Margo Lane. Moe gets plenty to do in this tale, as well. Harry is used, but not as much. And Burbank is mentioned several times, but doesn't actually appear. There is no sign of the other agents.
As for the law, Inspector Joe Cardona is well used in this adventure. Commissioner Ralph Weston is there, as well. No sign of any other recurring characters on the police force.
There's not much to help this story stand out from the rest of the pack. There is one brief visit to the sanctum, which is always nice to see. But it's just a page or so, in which The Shadow picks up some fingerprint files and then leaves. We also get to see the Shadow use his tiny flashlight with green and red lenses. And we are reminded that Moe's taxicab has a top that can be lowered. Something to help crooks from recognizing it, apparently.
There are no disguises in this story, except for the Lamont Cranston disguise. But it has been used so often, that there's really nothing remarkable about that. The Shadow appears in his black raiment as well. It might have helped the story if he could have found some reason to don another disguise, but alas he didn't.
It's hard to recommend this story when there are so many others that are better. But it's also hard to recommend you avoid it, since there's basically nothing wrong with it. Once you get past the interesting invention of Infralux, and the unique surprise of having a man blackmailed by his double, the story is just uninspired and routine. Margo Lane does get some nice scenes, and perhaps that's enough to justify reading it.
You could do worse, you could do better. It's your call.
Olsen was first introduced to The Shadow in the early 1960's, tuning in to
rebroadcasts of his adventures on KEX radio in Portland, Oregon. Several years
later, John was drawn to a hardback book entitled "The Weird Adventures of The
Shadow," containing three Shadow novels reprinted from the old pulp magazines.
The pulp Shadow was a far different character from the beloved radio version, but
the stories drew him in and opened his eyes to a richer version of the hero.
Today, John is retired in Sherwood, Oregon. He has read all 325 of
the old Shadow pulp mysteries and enjoys them so much that, as of this writing,
he is well over half way through reading them all again for a second time.