John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #37
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with
"The Third Skull"
was originally published in the May 15, 1935 issue of The Shadow Magazine. The third skull holds the secret to immense wealth: the hidden fortune of Hildrew Parchell. Now that the old miser has died, someone is out to uncover that secret; someone who will not stop at murder. It will take The Shadow to unmask the hidden power behind the evil plot and prevent further murder.
Hildrew Parchell is on his deathbed and knows it. He lays propped up in bed in his second-story bedroom and sends his faithful butler, Tristram, for three men: Weldon Wingate, his lawyer, Doctor Raymond Deseurre, his physician, and Selwood Royce, son of his best friend. While he waits alone, he writes down the secret location of his hidden wealth, a secret heretofore only kept in his mind.
An intruder enters the house and appears at the bedroom door. It's Homer Hothan, the secretary that he dismissed weeks before. Hothan is back to find the secret to old Parchell's wealth. Hildrew Parchell knows why Hothan is there, as soon as he spies him in the doorway. Fearful that his secret will fall into the wrong hands, old Parchell thrusts the handwritten note into the flames of a bedside candle. There is a scuffle as Homer Hothan wrests it from Hildrew Parchell's weak grip.
The exertion is too much for Hildrew Parchell, and he succumbs to a heart attack. The candle, knocked over in the altercation, sets the linens afire. The bedroom bursts into flames. Homer Hothan, standing there holding Hildrew Parchell's partially burned note, realizes it's time to make good his escape. Parchell is dead; Hothan has the note with the secret - well most of it, anyway.
When Parchell's faithful servant Tristram returns, he finds his master dead and the bedroom in flames. He puts out the fire and calls the police. His master is dead and the secret of his wealth went with him. No one knows that old Parchell put pen to paper and made a written record of his secret hiding place. No one knows that the death was anything but accidental. No one but Homer Hothan who escaped with the half-burned note, leaving no clues behind. No one but Homer Hothan... and The Shadow!
Detective Joe Cardona later views the scene of the death and assumes that old Parchell died of a heart attack, and his falling body knocked over the candle and set the fire. But when The Shadow views the same scene later that evening, he picks up clues that Cardona missed. The Shadow detects that someone else was there; that a note was written; that said note was only partially destroyed; and that this was murder!
The Shadow soon pins the murder right where it belongs, on former employee Homer Hothan. But it becomes quickly apparent that Homer Hothan was not smart enough to be acting on his own. So who is he working for? Who is the unknown mastermind behind the crime?
Could it be Selwood Royce? His now-deceased father, Thatcher Royce, was Parchell's good friend. Perhaps he heard of the treasure and seeks it for himself. Could it be Roger Parchell? He's old Hildrew's nephew and only heir. He's set to inherit everything, but perhaps there is another motive. Could it be lawyer Weldon Wingate? Wingate was in charge of old Parchell's affairs, and might want the wealth for his own. Could it be Doctor Raymond Deseurre, his personal physician? He might have heard mention of Parchell's secrets as a trusted confidant. Perhaps it was Channing Tobold, a pawnbroker and friend of the recently deceased Parchell. He was certainly in a position to know of the treasure. It might have even been Professor Tyson Morth, an anthropologist and one of Parchell's few remaining friends.
There are plenty of suspects, but not many clues upon which to depend. Whereas the local police seem baffled, The Shadow uses his keen analytical mind to piece together what slim clues do exist, and form them into a plan for action. To do this, The Shadow needs the assistance of all his agents. He even calls in some of his part-time agents that are rarely seen.
Featured in this pulp mystery are all of The Shadow's usual secret agents. Clyde Burke, reporter for the New York Classic, plays a large role as he gathers information for The Shadow. Long-time agent Harry Vincent gets to travel to Ohio on The Shadow's behalf, and then returns to assist in surveillance duties. Cliff Marsland and Hawkeye are on duty in the badlands as they seek out the current location of Homer Hothan and the cutthroats under his command. Taxi driver Moe Shrevnitz assists with travel and special duties following suspects. Contact-man Burbank and investment-broker Rutledge Mann collect messages to and from The Shadow and keep communications flowing freely.
Other less-oft-used agents appear here, as well. Dr. Rupert Sayre is called in to keep an eye on Doctor Raymond Deseurre at a medical banquet. Italian fruit vendor Peitro shows up with his heavy pushcart to keep watch outside the front of Professor Tyson Morth's home. African Jericho Druke, whose specialty is hiring out as a doorman complete with resplendent uniform, watches the rear of Morth's residence. Even Stanley, the chauffeur, is an unwitting agent for The Shadow; he assists The Shadow without knowing it when following instructions from the man he believes to be his master, Lamont Cranston. Yes, everybody gets involved in this story!
The only main character who doesn't appear here is New York Police Commissioner Ralph Weston. He's not even mentioned. The only representatives of the law are Detective Sergeant Markham and Detective Joe Cardona. Cardona is described as an "acting inspector" here, so he's starting to move up in the world. Soon, he would no longer be "detective" but "inspector" Cardona.
As for The Shadow himself, most of the time he appears in his garb of black. But he does take on two disguises in this tale. He appears as millionaire and world-traveler Lamont Cranston; the real Cranston is once again conveniently out of the country. And he appears as Fritz, the dull-witted janitor at police headquarters. Usually Fritz only gets a single word of dialogue: "Yah." Whatever Cardona, Markham or any other headquarters man says to Fritz, his standard reply is "Yah." But this time, good old Fritz gets a few extra words. This time he says, "Yah. Goot, this one. Goot!" Whew, he's becoming quite loquacious!
And what's all this "skull" business from the title? Well, it all goes to that note that old Hildrew Parchell wrote on the night of his death. Although it was partly burned, enough of the note remained to give definite clues to the location of Parchell's hidden wealth. It indicated that the wealth lay "with the skull." But what skull? And where?
Much of this great old pulp novel revolves around Homer Hothan's search for the skull. And as the title suggests, it takes several attempts before the search finally comes to fruition with the discovery of the third skull. The actual solution to the entire mystery was originally plastered on the cover of the pulp magazine. It gave the whole thing away; something I don't plan on doing here. But I will say it has to do with an optical illusion, and is pretty cool!
This early Shadow novel has many of the intriguing touches for which The Shadow as famous. There are the coded notes passed between The Shadow and his agents. The visits to the sanctum, that hidden room of blackness from which glows a single blue bulb. There is the wireless short-wave set that Burbank uses from his hidden post to communicate with The Shadow in the back seat of Lamont Cranston's limousine. The huge book in which The Shadow relates the details of his work; a massive tome where he makes entries in careful handwriting.
There are skulls aplenty in this story. All which add to making it a most enjoyable romp with The Shadow and his agents in this early tale. It's a page turner!
"Room of Doom" was published in the April 1, 1942 issue of The Shadow Magazine. The room in question is the den of Arthur Aldriff. It's the room in which he meets his demise. But was it suicide or murder? It will take amazing deductive abilities of The Shadow to prove it murder.
It all begins at a dinner party being held by Arthur Aldriff, one of the three partners in the Magnax Corporation. Aldriff is confronted by beautiful young Joan Kelburn. She's concerned about some stock that her uncle, Smead Kelburn, has been selling on Aldriff's behalf. She suspects some fraud, and wants to make sure her uncle isn't involved in the swindle.
Arthur Aldriff assures her that her uncle is safe. All is on the up-and-up. While Joan rejoins the guests in the dining room, Aldriff decides to stay in the den to finish up some business, alone. Outside the locked door, guests hear the sound of a gunshot and the thud of a falling body. Death has visited the Aldriff mansion.
The guests break into the room to find the body of Arthur Aldriff. They make a meticulous search of the room. There is no one else there, and no way for anyone to enter. It must have been suicide!
A masked man enters the room. He's armed with a revolver and he holds the guests at bay as he attempts to make off with a sealed metal box. The lights go out and there's a mad scramble as a fight ensues between the guests and the masked intruder. After nearly demolishing the room, he makes good his escape.
The dinner guests help scour the house and surrounding grounds in search for the masked thief. A man takes off in an automobile, but he's recognized. It's Joan's uncle, Smead Kelburn. Everyone assumes he was the masked robber, and the chase is on.
Was it really suicide? Everyone assumes so. Everyone but The Shadow. To The Shadow, it is a locked room murder mystery. But how to explain the method? With no way to enter or leave the room, how could it be other than suicide? And what was the role of the masked man? What was his true purpose? And who was he? Was he really Smead Kelburn? Only The Shadow knows. Only The Shadow can untangle the strange web of deceit and mystery that surrounds the death of Arthur Aldriff.
Assisting The Shadow in this story are his contact man Burbank and secret agents Moe Shrevnitz, Margo Lane, Harry Vincent, Clyde Burke and Cliff Marsland. It's nice to see Moe Shrevnitz referred to by his own name, not the nickname "Shrevvy" that often was used when Margo Lane also appeared in a story. Dr. Rupert Sayre also is mentioned in passing, but doesn't actually appear. Police Commissioner Ralph Weston and Inspector Joe Cardona appear representing the law.
This is another of those stories in which Police Commissioner Weston doesn't officially recognize the existence of The Shadow. In the earlier stories, Weston truly believed that there was no single person called The Shadow. In later stories, he began to believe he was real, but still forbade any official mention of him. Finally, he had to admit even officially that such a person did exist. This story comes from a period when Weston knows of The Shadow, but officially denies his existence.
The Shadow appears as Lamont Cranston, his most-oft-used disguise. He also appears disguised as art-shop owner Junius Wilstead. And of course he appears as himself, the black-cloaked wraith of the night.
In this story, Margo Lane knows that Lamont Cranston is really The Shadow in disguise. You may remember that in some of the earlier Margo Lane stories, she was unaware of the relationship between Cranston and The Shadow. Later she began to suspect. Here, she knows.
It this story, as in several others, the deceptive color of The Shadow's cab is mentioned. The cab, owned by The Shadow and driven by Moe Shrevnitz, is maroon in color. This combination of red and purple has the ability to take on different appearances in different lightings. In sunlight, it looks more reddish. At night under artificial light, it appears purple. This chameleonlike ability to change color once again assists The Shadow in trailing suspects who don't recognize the same cab because of its changing appearance.
Speaking of colors, The Shadow uses his special flashlight with the colored lenses again in this story. He gives blinks with the tiny light, so small that they are only a speck of light. A glimmer of green indicates that his agents should trail along behind him. A yellow blink tells them to slacken their approach. And when the speck of light turns red, The Shadow indicates the limit to their advance.
The solution to the sealed room murder is quite ingenious. Walter Gibson used a method quite well-known to his fellow magicians, but then added several additional layers of misdirection to make a very satisfying resolution to the seemingly-unsolvable murder. It seems to be an impossible case; a perfect crime. But The Shadow reveals the diabolical secret behind the murder and unmasks the true perpetrators of the million-dollar swindle.
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.