John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #31
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with
"The Dark Death" was
originally published in the February 15, 1935 issue of The Shadow
Magazine. "Beware, dark men! Doom awaits you! That is the message in
the crystal." Or so warns Cuyler Willington. And when he says "dark
men" he refers not to their dark deeds, but the color of their skin.
Yes, Cuyler Willington controls a diabolical machine which generates
the mysterious Q-ray, a strange ray that kills all persons with dark
skins. Light-skinned persons are immune to the deadly ray.
Doesn't sound too politically correct, does it? Racist? Biased on the
basis of skin color? Well, judging by the original title under which it
was originally submitted, it might have been even worse. It was
originally entitled "The Black Death." The editors at Street &
Smith made the decision to change the title, and who knows what else
they changed in the nine months between the time it was submitted until
it was finally published.
As our story opens, The Shadow disguised as wealthy Lamont Cranston,
has heard about a strange new invention. It has been reported to him by
Clyde Burke, reporter and secret agent for The Shadow. As Cranston, The
Shadow visits the New York laboratories of the Universal Electric
Company and speaks to James Sundler, the supervisor in charge.
The new invention, he is told, was originally designed for the
treatment of skin diseases. The strange Q-ray generated by this
glass-and-chrome machine was supposed to change the actual structure of
the epidermis, giving light-skinned, Nordic-complexioned persons the
heat-resisting strength found in skins of darker races.
The Shadow, as Cranston, claims he's interested in the machine because
of an upcoming expedition to Africa. He hopes the Q-ray treatments will
prove beneficial to members of his expedition and prepare them for the
African ordeal. At least, that's what he tells Sundler. Actually, he's
heard disturbing news that all persons of darker skin who come under
the Q-ray succumb to a quick and horrible death.
James Sundler explains that they've discovered the terrible deadly
effects of the Q-ray on persons of color - Africans, Malays,
Indonesians, Spaniards, Italians, Sicilians, Mediterraneans - and have
stopped work on the machine. It will never be used again, and is not
available to Cranston. But little does anyone know that electrical
expert Seth Brophy has a second machine secreted away in his hidden
Seth Brophy helped design the Q-ray machine, but was laid off when
development of the machine was discontinued. Now he's out of work and
can't pay the blackmail money being demanded by the merciless Cuyler
Willington. Thus, the hidden second machine falls into the ruthless
hands of a blackmailer and a killer. With the Q-ray machine, Willington
can kill without detection. And no one can stop him. No one but... The
And assisting The Shadow in this tale are all of his early agents.
Burbank and Rutledge Mann are his two contact men. Moe Shrevnitz is his
personal taxi driver. Clyde Burke is back on the New York Classic,
after previously being fired. One of The Shadow's earliest agents is
Harry Vincent, who still works out of the Metrolite Hotel. Reputed
killer Cliff Marsland has been working for The Shadow for several years
now. Hawkeye, the hunchy little spotter, still technically works for
Slade Farrow, but is on loan to The Shadow, here. Reserve agent Pietro,
the Italian fruit vendor, makes one of his rare appearances here, as
Assisting the forces of law and order are Detective Joe Cardona,
Detective Sergeant Markham and New York Police Commissioner Ralph
Weston. Yes, Commissioner Weston is back from Garauca. He left New York
in the September 15, 1934 story "The Garaucan Swindle" and was replaced
by Wainwright Barth. But this story marks his return. As it turns out,
Barth would show up again without any explanation in a few more stories
after this, but the actual explanation lies in the fact that the
editors at Street & Smith published the Shadow stories out of
order. If they had published them in the order Walter Gibson had
written them, there would have been no continuity conflicts.
The Shadow appears in this story in several disguises. His most
often-used disguise is that of millionaire world-traveler Lamont
Cranston. But he also appears disguised as an underworld crook by the
name of Tonk Ringo. And he appears in another recurring disguise as
Fritz, the slow-witted janitor at police headquarters. Fritz has a
limited vocabulary of one single word: "yah." In all the Shadow novels,
I don't think I've ever heard him utter anything else.
There are several things that are notable about this particular Shadow
pulp mystery. Hawkeye is not yet a full-time agent for The Shadow. When
Hawkeye was first introduced in the 1934 story "The Green Box," he
worked for criminologist Slade Farrow. He remained in Farrow's employ
throughout the next few stories as he was given permission by Farrow to
aide Farrow's friend The Shadow. He finally transitioned into a
permanent full-time agent for The Shadow. In this story, the transition
is nearly complete. He is found living at Farrow's apartment, still,
but immediately joins The Shadow's other agents when needed.
It's pointed out that Hawkeye now owns The Shadow as a chief (not "his"
chief, or "the" chief, but "a" chief - meaning one of two: Slade Farrow
and The Shadow). However, Hawkeye still feels dread when he hears the
sinister whisper of his mysterious master. He's still new to the group
and it shows.
The previous police commissioner Wainwright Barth has left New York.
He's currently taking a trip to Europe in this story, and Ralph Weston
explains "for the time being I am on the job." And this makes Detective
Cardona relieved, since he never really got along well with
Apparently reporter Clyde Burke didn't get along with Wainwright Barth
too well, either. We are told that Burke panned Barth in one of his New
York Classic columns and lost his job on account of it. But we're told
that now that Weston is back in charge, Clyde Burke has been rehired at
In one last note, it is mentioned that Moe Shrevnitz has a dictograph
microphone hidden in the back of his taxi, with a headphones in the
front seat. His taxi is wired to allow him to overhear any
conversations that might pass between suspects riding in his cab. This
surveillance equipment was mentioned in several stories, but is still
worthy of note here.
How politically incorrect is this story? Well, it could have been
worse. And perhaps, judging from the original title of "The Black
Death" it was. Unless someone can come up with Walter Gibson's original
unedited manuscript for this story, we may never know. But if you read
this story, keep it mind it was written in 1934 and published in 1935.
Historical perspective often helps in these cases.
The story is notable for many reasons, and the positive far outweigh
the negative. It deserves to be read, and it is a fun Shadow romp.
"House of Shadows"
was originally published in the December 15, 1939 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Crime threatens to strike in the old house on the lonely, forgotten block. But The Shadow takes a hand to defeat the malevolent powers that would enter the House of Shadows.
This is a good, serviceable Shadow mystery. Not a great story, but very enjoyable to read. There is plenty of action. Some nice plot intricacies. A couple special scenes including one where The Shadow is captured and held helpless. And there is the usual twist ending, where the master villain is finally revealed to be the person you would least expect.
There were only a few of the Shadow stories that revolved around redemption. This is one of them. In this tale, one man is forced into a life of crime. He falls in love and wants to become worthy of the object of his affections. He regrets his illegal acts and wants to go straight. And with the aid of The Shadow, he is able to once again become a law-abiding citizen. This mystery becomes a nice change of pace for Shadow readers. It's most satisfying to see The Shadow help in the reformation of a young man who has been drawn into crookedness.
Denry Melwin is the young man in question. At the beginning of the story, he is secretary to importer Lawrence Trone. And he's living a normal life, free from the influences of crime. But he is soon contacted by Turk Gorlon, a high class crook who lets others do his dirty work for him. Gorlon shows Denry some IOUs from his brother Alvin. Gorlon reveals that Alvin Melwin is actually the notorious hoodlum named Kid Pell. Gorlon tells Denry that his brother is hiding out, and Gorlon knows the hideout location. If Denry doesn't repay Gordon the five thousand dollars in the IOUs, Gorlon threatens to tip off the police to Alvin's location. In order to save the family name and reputation; in order to save his brother from incarceration, Denry Melwin must come up with five thousand dollars to pay off Turk Gorlon.
What neither Denry Melwin or Turk Gorlon know is that Alvin, alias Kid Pell, is actually dead. He was killed in a hold-up attempt. He was trying to hold up a "Hollywood on Tour" bus that carried a million-dollar cargo of movie stars. But what he had not anticipated is that The Shadow was also riding that bus. Disguised as Lamont Cranston, he was on board as guest, while some movie producers were trying to induce Cranston to back some new movies they were starting. So when Kid Pell tried to hold up the bus, The Shadow stepped in and saved the day. In the battle, Kid Pell was critically wounded by The Shadow. Before he died from gunshot wounds, he asked The Shadow to watch out for his brother, Denry Melwin, and keep him away from crime. Brother Denry, of course, had no idea his brother was leading a secret life of crime.
The Shadow, in order to track down Kid Pell's cohorts, had kept secret the death of the gunman. He had gone so far as to let the word out to the underworld that Kid Pell was in hiding. So when Denry Melwin meets with Turk Gorlon, both believe Alvin Melwin, alias Kid Pell, is still alive. And Gorlon is going to use his knowledge of Kid Pell's hideouts to extort five thousand dollars from brother Denry.
All this time, handsome young Denry Melwin has been living a clean life, unaware of his brother's notoriety. But now, he must pay five thousand dollars that he doesn't have, to save his brother's life. Ah, if he only knew there was no life to save. Gradually, he is drawn into crime by Turk Gorlon - forced to embezzle from his employer, importer Lawrence Trone, to pay off his brother's debts. What he doesn't know is that there is a hidden mastermind, a big shot behind Turk Gorlon who wants to turn Denry Melwin to crime. For some secret reason, someone wants Melwin to break the law the incriminate himself. But who? And why?
Luckily, The Shadow is involved. He has made a promise to a dying man. He promised Kid Pell, alias Alvin Melwin, that he would keep an eye on brother Denry. He promised to keep Denry from a life of crime. And The Shadow will keep his word! The Shadow must trap the crooks, including the rumored "Mr. Big," and keep young Melwin from following in his brother's crooked footsteps.
So, where does this "House of Shadows" fit into the story? It's the gloomy residence of Miss Prudence Ralcott, the wealthiest woman in New York. It's elderly Miss Ralcott that Turk Gorlon wants to rob. And he coerces Denry Melwin into helping him. Denry embezzled five thousand dollars from his employer, importer Lawrence Trone, and paid off Turk Gorlon. But now that Denry has turned to crime, Turk Gorlon has a hold over him. Turk can force poor Denry to commit further acts of crime, upon threat of exposure.
Living in this house of shadows with Miss Prudence Ralcott, is her niece Carol Marr. Denry meets her when visiting the house for his employer's business. And he falls in love. Beautiful young Carol shares his feelings. But Denry knows he can never ask for her hand in marriage while the shadow of dishonor lies upon him. He must make restitution for the money he embezzled. He must thwart Turk Gorlon's upcoming plans to rob Miss Prudence Ralcott. He must throw himself upon the mercy of the law and swear to go straight. And to do these things will require the assistance of the one man in all of New York who can fight the gangs of the underworld... The Shadow!
Basically, The Shadow works alone in this story. Harry Vincent makes a brief appearance in the beginning of the story, driving The Shadow from the scene of the bus holdup. Moe Shrevnitz makes a couple of very brief appearances, as well. Contact man Burbank is mentioned, but doesn't actually appear. Inspector Joe Cardona shows up at the very end. But that's it. Most of the usual gang is missing from this story. Commissioner Weston is absent, as are all of the rest of The Shadow's agents.
There was one passage in the story that caught my attention. It mentions Lamont Cranston's wealth, "which he is supposed to have inherited." The source of Cranston's wealth was rarely if ever mentioned. This is the only time I can remember seeing reference to it as being inherited. Interesting. I appreciate author Walter Gibson giving readers that additional insight.
There was one line, spoken by wealthy Miss Prudence Ralcott, that particularly resonated with me, in light of the current world financial and credit melt-down. She says to Denry, "All my transactions are in cash alone. These modern credit methods - bah! They are the cause of all business upsets and economic troubles!" Wow, those words written in 1939 sure take on a prophetic tone as this is being written in mid-October of 2008. If businesses had heeded her words, we wouldn't be in the crisis that faces us today! Walter Gibson's wisdom is still relevant even seventy years later.
But Gibson dropped the ball in the criminal mastermind's motivation. We are told that the big shot wants to turn Denry Melwin crooked. Later we are told that Turk Gorlon had intentionally put brother Alvin (Kid Pell) in a jam, in order to reach Denry. But why? Gibson never really explains that, in the end. There is some general explanation about wanting an "inside man" in the Ralcott residence. But why couldn't it have been someone else? Why specifically did he want Denry Melwin to turn to crime? We are never told. I felt a bit let town by this oversight, and probably would have rated the story higher if that information had been included. It could have easily been explained as some family feud, or grudge held against a relative, or some such thing. But I think Gibson overlooked a loose thread, here.
One of Gibson's specialty is unusual names. You rarely find a "Bill," "Sam," or "George" in Gibson's Shadow stories. And as expected, this story is filled with characters with atypical names: Denry Melwin, Shank Bithlo, Turk Gorlon, Uriah Hebler. Whew! This is one place where Gibson came through, as always.
As stated earlier, this is a fun Shadow story. While it may not rank in the top twenty of the Shadow stories, it is still a worthwhile read. One I think you'll enjoy. It's a solo adventure of The Shadow, and a good one, too!
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.