John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #53
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"Garden of Death" was originally published in the October 1, 1941 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Margo Lane becomes a guest at the home of horticulturalist Theophilus Malbray. And inside the expansive greenhouse lays an insidious evil which will imperil Margo. Can The Shadow rescue her from the Garden of Death?
The year 1941 was a pretty good year for The Shadow Magazine. It certainly could not compete with the top notch stories of the 1930's, but there were still quite a few interesting mysteries to be published in 1941. "The Chinese Primrose," "The White Column," "Dictator of Crime" and "The Crimson Death" were but a sample of the enjoyable stories published that year. The story being reviewed here, "Garden of Death," is another nicely written, exciting story. It's well organized, leaves no hanging plot threads, and is carefully researched. I'm not saying it's the best Shadow story ever written; I'm not even saying it's the best of 1941. But it is a very serviceable pulp mystery that will leave you satisfied.
All of the actions in this story are motivated by a new drug discovery. Somnotone is a harmless drug with powerful sleep-inducing and anesthetic properties. Theophilus Malbray is the famed horticulturist who created it. He's a strange old duck who lives in a large mansion on the heights above the Hudson, where he works endlessly in his large greenhouse that adjoins the main house. To him, time is irrelevant. In fact, he refuses to allow a clock or watch in the house. So he works diligently on his exotic plants without constraint of time.
Richard Bendleton is a millionaire who controls the Alliance Drug Corporation. He wants to distribute this new drug at no profit, so as to benefit humanity. To this end, he plans to organize a new company, an independent corporation to be capitalized at a million dollars. The new company would purchase the rights to the drug and see to its manufacture and distribution. It sounds like a great plan, until Bendleton turns up dead. And that's where our story opens.
Lamont Cranston, in reality The Shadow in his Cranston disguise, is invited for dinner at the Bendleton estate on Long Island. But when he arrives, the butler lays dead on the hallway floor. In the second story hallway, Jennings, the secretary is also found dead. And in his study, Richard Bendleton lies crumpled in his chair. All three are victims of some apparent poison gas. The only person in the household to be spared is Bendleton's daughter, Fay. She had chanced to be out of the house at the time death struck.
Fay Bendleton had been on the way to pick up Theophilus Malbray, the inventor of the miracle drug. Malbray was to join Cranston as guests at the Bendleton home for dinner. With the tragedy in her home, old Malbray invites Fay to stay at his home above the Hudson until she has had time to overcome her grief. She gratefully agrees, not realizing what a strange house she will be entering.
Kirby Eldwald was another person anxious to purchase the rights to Somnotone from Theophilus Malbray. Eldwald, head of the Apex Drug chain, was a business rival of Richard Bendleton. It was his plan to purchase the secret to the new drug, and market it through his chain of drug stores. He foresaw great profits in this medication. Profits that would add to his already-great fortune. If anyone had a motive to kill Bendleton, Eldwald was a prime suspect.
Kirby Eldwald is erased from the suspect list after a terrific explosion erases him from this earth. He receives a package delivery. The package was from Richard Bendleton, of all people. Sent before Bendleton's death by poison gas. And inside the package is a powerful explosive which snuffs out Kirby Eldwald's life. Could it be that Eldwald was responsible for the poison gas at Bendleton's? And that Bendleton was responsible for the explosion at Eldwald's? Did the two men kill each other? Or was there a new, invisible and sinister hand at work, in this diabolical scheme?
Luckily, The Shadow has been on the case from the get-go. He has not been able to prevent the death of either Bendleton or Eldwald, but he still is able to pick up a good assortment of clues. And before the story has even reached the half-way point, The Shadow has figured out who is the figure behind the murders. The readers are let in on the identity of the killer, so there are no surprise unmaskings at the climax of this tale. The reader knows from chapter thirteen on, that the master villain is... (you can skip the next two paragraphs, if you don't want the story spoiled).
The personage behind the murders is quickly identified by The Shadow as being the horticulturist Theophilus Malbray. Far from being mankind's benefactor, Malbray is in it for the money. He first sold the formula for Somnotone to Richard Bendleton for a hundred thousand dollars. Since it was a secret deal, he killed Bendleton and kept the money. Then he made another secret deal with Kirby Eldwald. Yet another hundred thousand bucks exchanged hands, and then Eldwald was killed as well. Now, he's about to sell the rights for a third time. And this time, to Lamont Cranston!
So where does the garden come in to all of this? After all, the title of the story is "Garden of Death" so there better be something pretty unusual about the garden at Professor Malbray's place. And actually, it does play a pretty clever role in things. It is the garden that takes the place of a timepiece, allowing Professor Malbray to tell the time of day with pretty fair accuracy. The exotic plants bloom at specific times of the day, which permits Malbray to execute his devious plans with precision. For example, at four o'clock in the afternoon, the Peruvian Marvels opened their blossoms. These flowers, more commonly known as "Four O'Clocks," were just one of many plants that Malbray could use to tell any time of day or night. A clever idea which author Walter Gibson must have carefully researched.
Margo Lane and Harry Vincent are the two agents of The Shadow who get the largest roles in this story. Since Margo knew Fay Bendleton socially, it gave her an excuse to visit Professor Malbray's and worm in invitation to stay as another house guest. All so that she could keep Fay safe, and at the same time work undercover at the Malbray home. Harry Vincent joins the gardening staff at Professor Malbray's, which assures that he will be on hand if needed. The two of them get plenty of action in this story.
This story makes it clear, by the way, that both Margo and Harry know that Lamont Cranston isn't really Lamont Cranston. They know he is really The Shadow, who has borrowed the Cranston guise. In some stories, it is not clear if they know their master wears the Cranston disguise or not. At times, they believe Cranston may be just another agent of The Shadow. But in this tale, there is no doubt. They know that beneath the false face of Lamont Cranston is the unknown face of their master.
As for other recurring characters, contact man Burbank shows up a couple of times. Chauffeur Stanley appears briefly. And both Commissioner Weston and Inspector Cardona appear in nice large roles. But that's it as far as familiar characters. The Shadow appears as Cranston and as his black-cloaked self. But no other disguises.
A couple items of interest. Lamont Cranston has purchased a flashy new limousine. It has a convertible top, which makes it quite different from the previous model. Also in this story we get to see The Shadow visit the laboratory in his sanctum. It's not often we get to see that laboratory, but this is one the few stories in which it appears. The Shadow is called from the lab back into the sanctum by a buzz from Burbank. Usually, it's a small blinking light that calls to The Shadow. This is the only time I can recall that it buzzed instead of blinked. A new twist is always welcome.
To add a little spice to the plotline, The Shadow also has to take on a huge orangutan in a couple scenes. And let's not forget a gigantic vampire bat, with wingspan of fully thirty inches! Oh yeah, there's a lot more going on in that garden of death than would first meet the eye.
You always knew that The Shadow was a gifted crime fighter, but did you know he could walk on water? Literally! I won't go into the details of how he does it, but at the story's climax we find The Shadow confronting the master criminal while walking on water. It is pretty cool.
I liked this story. By unmasking the villain early in the story, the reader is allowed to see The Shadow and his agents going about the task of proving what he has already logically deduced. We see them designing the net to capture and reveal the true identity of the murderer. It's a different perspective from most stories, and very interesting.
In some pulp stories, there are mysterious happenings that are never explained. It's as though the author felt that they were necessary to set up the mood, but then could later be ignored. If the reader got caught up in the story, he would hopefully forget to go back and ask what happened to some character, or how some event could have happened. But I was pleased to find that this story was very well designed, and I found no events that remained unexplained. No characters who just faded away. The plot was tight, everything was logical and explained and the science seemed well researched.
All in all, this was another enjoyable and satisfying Shadow mystery from the pen of Walter Gibson. It was short enough to be read in a few hours, and had plenty of mystery and action. I think you would like it, too.
"The Vampire Murders" was originally published in the September 1, 1942 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Could The Shadow keep his promise that he, strange master of darkness, would take a hand in solving the weird riddle of Haldrew Hall, after mere humans had finished their speculations on the subject of a roving vampire that had vanished without a rattle of its bones?
Pulp stories often mirrored what was currently popular in the movies. Vampire movies had been quite popular for the previous ten years or so, considering all the Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolfman movies that Universal was churning out. The other major studios got into the act, as well. MGM hired Bela Lugosi for "Mark of the Vampire" and the lower budget movie studios like Monogram were making audiences happy with their own string of horror films. So it was not surprising that a vampire story should appear in The Shadow Magazine.
This story gets off to an impressive start. Very spooky and it really gets you into the mood for a vampire story. But author Walter Gibson just keeps it going too long. Too much of a good thing can get boring after a while. All the moody atmosphere which made the introduction so terrific starts to wear thin by half-way through the novel. I found myself getting annoyed by all the overly-done creepy descriptions... "OK, I get it, all ready!"
Now, let me point out that there are no vampires, really. Not in this story. The Shadow stories were based in reality and things that go bump in the night always have common everyday explanations when the story wraps up things at the end. Fantastic events which could only have supernatural explanations turn out to have normal explanations after all. (The one exception to this would be "The Devil Monsters" where the prehistoric beasts actually did exist.)
As I read this story, I kept wondering how Walter Gibson would explain it all away in the end, feeling most confident that he would. And he did. Just like in the Scooby-Doo stories, where the monster turns out to be a guy in a rubber mask, the vampire turns out to be a hoax. No rubber mask, but a hoax, nonetheless. I didn't feel cheated, though; I knew it would be all explained when I started reading. Half the fun was trying to figure out an explanation for the different unexplainable events, and then comparing my explanation with what was finally revealed in the story.
"It was a dark and stormy night..." No, that's not how this story begins, but it could have... Maybe it should have... It starts outside Haldrew Hall, the mysterious old mansion where old Giles Haldrew had recently died at the ripe old age of ninety three. Distant relatives are arriving to stay a month in the spooky old house. That's the only way they can claim their share of the inheritance. It's not a very large inheritance, but... hey, money is money.
Among the relatives showing up is Harry Vincent, agent for The Shadow. Harry isn't really related to the Haldrews; he's been sent there by The Shadow to play the part and uncover the secret of the manor. As he arrives, thunder and lightning surround the dark old house. He's greeted by Varney Haldrew, Giles only brother -- twenty five years younger.
You know right from the beginning that Varney isn't to be trusted. His name alone speaks "vampire!" And his appearance... His face was almost a living skull, a leering thing with vicious, ugly teeth. His eyes were lost within their sockets. He dresses all in gray, including gray gloves which he never removes. He appears in the dark of the hallway as a grisly creature wandering from its tomb!
Inside the strange old house, Vincent meets the rest of the relatives. There are Warren and Cedric Armand, look-alike cousins. Then there's George Frenton and Dr. Simon Clabb, also both distantly related. Beautiful young Gail Merwin adds the love interest. Old Sabbatha, niece of Varney, is a resident of the house. And let's not forget Throck, the strange old servant.
From this group of characters, we must find a murderer. Perhaps more than one! And a vampire. Perhaps more than one of them, as well!
Yes, vampires! This story features all the trappings. There's the bite marks on the throats of victims. The aversion to garlic. The vampire turns to a cold mist, to pass beneath locked doors. Old Varney shows up stalking the hallways in a shroud greenish from the mold of many years. We see him lying in his coffin. And he casts no reflection in a mirror. Sure sounds like a vampire to me!
First George Frenton dies. Was it from fright? Did he have a heart condition? What about those two strange marks on this throat? Then Dr. Clabb turns up dead. Two murders! Who will be the third? Harry Vincent must solve the mystery of the vampire murders with the assistance of The Shadow.
This story harkens back to the earlier days of The Shadow, when the character himself doesn't appear often in the story. We have a proxy hero, in this case Harry Vincent, who carries most of the action. Young Gail Merwin is also a bit of a proxy heroine, herself. The story follows her, along with the other relatives, and the reader is obviously intended to sympathize with her. The Shadow only shows up at vital moments to save the day.
While living in the old house, Harry gets occasional messages from his chief. And we again are reminded that they are written in code which disappears from the paper shortly after exposure to air. This time around, some of those messages are dispatched by carrier pigeons, no less. That was a nice touch, I thought.
Also in this story, we see The Shadow using his famous suction cups to climb the outside walls of the mansion. Those cups are always a favorite of mine, and I look forward to their use. And there's "The Devil's Whisper" -- the explosive mixture that The Shadow uses on rare occasions. Two dabs of different pastes: one for his thumb, the other for the tip of his second finger, and when he snaps his fingers, there is a flash and enormous explosion. No, it doesn't blow his fingers off, but it sure startles his opponent. Pretty cool!
Yes, this story does have a lot going for it. And I liked this story; but, I didn't love it. I started out loving it, but then when the atmospheric stuff just kept on without relief, I started to get tired of it. I can't say it's a great Shadow story, but it is a pretty good one.
John 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.