John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #57
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"The Five Chameleons" was originally published in the November 1932 issue of The Shadow Magazine. A team of five master criminals -- those were the Five Chameleons. And true of all chameleons, they had the uncanny ability to blend into their backgrounds. Only The Shadow could ferret them out and dispense justice to this unholy group.
Four of the five men in the group known as the Five Chameleons are yachting in the Caribbean. They have just completed some strange long-term task and are in the process of returning to New York. Let's meet the four. George Ellsworth is a big, bluff fellow, some forty odd years of age. To the group, he is known as "Butcher." Howard Best appears years older than Butcher. Known as "Deacon," he is grave-faced, very lean and withered. Joel Hawkins, "Ferret," is a short, stoop-shouldered man. Maurice Exton, secretly known as "Major," is a medium-sized man of military bearing in his late thirties.
The fifth man of the Five Chameleons is not aboard the yacht. David Traver, known to his associates as "Judge," has set himself up in the prosperous middle western town of Middletown. There he is president of one of the two banks in town, the Middletown Trust Company. And he is preparing the biggest swindle of his life. One that will net him and his four companions millions of dollars, and doom the entire community into economic chaos.
The yacht lands at Staten Island and the four master crooks disembark. They split up and make their way separately to the midwest town of Middletown. All except Ferret, who makes a short detour while in New York. He stops by and takes his revenge on Dan Antrim, a Manhattan lawyer who long ago double-crossed him. And that's his big mistake. For although he succeeds in killing Antrim, he also crosses paths with... The Shadow!
The Shadow has recognized that Dan Antrim is a crooked lawyer mixed up in the rackets. He's been having Harry Vincent carefully watch Antrim. So when lawyer Antrim meets his doom at the hands of Joel "Ferret" Hawkins, The Shadow is quick to take up his trail. At trail that leads to Middletown, and the reunion of the Five Chameleons.
Gradually, the four newcomers to Middletown settle in, with the aid of David "Judge" Traver. Ferret and Butcher get jobs in the Middletown Trust Company as tellers. The same bank of which Judge is president. Maurice "Major" Exton is given the position of head cashier. Four of the Five Chameleons now have various positions in the same bank. The fifth man, Howard "Deacon" Best, plays the part of an undertaker and buys the local Middletown Funeral Parlor.
The five have a scheme to loot the bank and the entire community. The first step is to remove the competition. The other bank in town, the County National Bank, has to go. Through secret means, they remove money from the bank and plant suspicion on innocent young Hubert Salisbury, the head cashier of the bank. Then they murder a detective investigating the missing cash, and plant the blame on young Salisbury. Finally, they murder the bank president, Roland Delmar, and frame it to look like suicide.
All this is too much for the community. There is a run on the bank, and it is forced to close. There is now only one back in town. All the former depositors of the County National Bank swarm to the Middletown Trust Company. And the money pours in! Yes, the sinister scheme is going nicely.
Into town comes Henry Arnaud. To the townsfolk, he is an innocent businessman. But to us, the readers, he is The Shadow in disguise. Yes, The Shadow is on the scene, and justice will soon be served to the guilty in Middletown. His only contact is Martha Delmar, the young daughter of Roland Delmar, president of the County National Bank who everyone believes committed suicide.
Martha is in love with Hubert Salisbury, the man jailed for the theft of money from the County National Bank and the murder of the investigating detective. Her fiance is in jail. Her father is dead. She's all alone. All except for... The Shadow! The Shadow visits her in the middle of the night and offers his help. Help that is badly needed.
It will take The Shadow to reveal the truth behind the missing money. It will take The Shadow to exonerate the innocent young man accused of the theft and of murder. It will take The Shadow to thwart the diabolical schemes of the Five Chameleons. It will take The Shadow to uncover the true hidden secret behind the entire scheme. And it will take The Shadow to bring the Five Chameleons to justice as only he can!
The Shadow works mainly alone in this story. And that was typical of the early Shadow stories. There weren't a lot of agents in action at that time. Burbank, his contact man, appears at the beginning of the novel. Faithful agent Harry Vincent is mentioned at the beginning and also at the very end. Reporter Clyde Burke's name comes up, but he doesn't actually take part in the story. Similarly, broker Rutledge Mann is mentioned only by name. And underworld worker Cliff Marsland very briefly appears at story's end.
The Shadow appears as his usual black-cloaked self throughout most of the story. He also appears in disguise as Henry Arnaud in the middle. No other disguises are mentioned, including the famous Lamont Cranston disguise. Regarding the quality of the disguise, we are told that one crook notices Arnaud's face is "masklike." It's white and waxen, as though it might have been applied by some artificial touch. In later stories, The Shadow apparently becomes much better at his disguises.
I should also mention that the only other recurring character who appears is Detective Joe Cardona, ace of the New York Police. No other law enforcement officers appear. No mention of Commissioner Weston.
There are some obvious indications that this is an early Shadow novel. For one thing, prohibition is casually mentioned in one place. Since prohibition ended at the end of 1933, that places the setting for this story before that.
Another indication of the early status of the novel is mention of The Shadow's weekly radio broadcasts. They were often mentioned in the early stories, but were gradually ignored as the years passed. In this pulp mystery, we are told that Martha Delmar has heard the mysterious man on the radio on her last trip back East. But she assumed, as did most of the public, that she was merely listening to a radio actor, not a real-life crime fighter.
In the early stories, The Shadow used his unique girasol ring as a means of identification. In later years, he took to wearing it openly on his finger when around town as Lamont Cranston. It no longer became a method of secret identification. But, here's how he reveals it to Martha Delmar in this story.
"This girasol," said the spectral voice, "is the symbol of The Shadow. Few have ever known its significance. You are one.
"He who wears this stone - like which there is no other - is The Shadow. No matter what his guise may be, he is The Shadow. Tell none what I have told you!"It's a good thing he does, too. For later, when he lies unconscious, seriously wounded in a gun battle, Martha Delmar is able to recognize the unknown man by the girasol ring on his hand, and offer him medical assistance.
Yes, The Shadow is seriously wounded in this story. He's shot and very near death. Only his sheer determination of will sees him through. As noted before, in Walter Gibson's writings of The Shadow, when he is wounded it is usually seriously. In The Shadow stories authored by Theodore Tinsley, on the other hand, The Shadow is wounded much more often, but usually a very minor wound. A bullet grazes his arm or thigh.
Walter Gibson's version of The Shadow meets with wounds less often, but more seriously. And that's where the mysterious phial of purplish liquid often came in handy. When he lacked the strength to go on, a quick swig of the strange potion revived him with quick energy. But that phial doesn't appear in this story. No, it hadn't been conceived, yet. Actually, a similar fluid appeared in the 1931 story "Gangdom's Doom," when The Shadow uses a vial of "pungent liquid" to revive Harry Vincent. But it wasn't described as "purplish," as it became to be known, later.
The first actual appearance of the purplish liquid would appear a few months after this story, in the January 1933 story "Shadowed Millions." Here, however, it was only used by The Shadow as smelling-salts to revive the proxy hero of the story. It wasn't imbibed. It was a year later with the December 1934 story "Treasures of Death" when for the first time the phial of purplish liquid was actually imbibed, to restore strength to The Shadow.
We also get to see an early view of The Shadow's strange sanctum. It changed slightly over the years. But here's the way it was described in this story:
The scene was a windowless room, furnished with bookcases, filing cabinets, a desk, and a single chair. There were lights in the room, but each was centered on a different object.
A green-shaded bulb threw a circle of light upon the desk. Other smaller incandescents glimmered their rays upon the cabinets and the bookcases.
The center of the room was dark and spectral. Only the edges were illuminated. The floor was heavily carpeted in jet black. The walls showed no opening. Despite the fringing lights, not even a shadow could be seen upon the sable floor.
Notice that the color of the light bulb was described as "green" here. Walter Gibson usually described it as "blue" but for some reason departed from the norm here. It makes me wonder if an editor at Street & Smith had a hand in that. Or maybe it was just a slight slip of the typewriter.
Although this is the seventeenth story in the series, the size of the story is only 48,000 words. Length of the pulp novels started out at 65,000 words with the first issue. But they quickly dropped to the mid-forties by the sixth story. By this, the seventeenth, nearly all the stories were in the 45,000 to 49,000 word length. Still, quite a prodigious amount for one man, Walter Gibson, to write every month at first -- and then every two weeks.
This is a straightforward tale of The Shadow against crooks. No ghosts. No mad scientists. No spies. No strange mansions. Just five evil men who have blended into their environment to live up to their reputations as the Five Chameleons.
"The Wasp" was originally published in the October 1, 1940 issue of The Shadow Magazine. He had the physical appearance of a giant deadly insect, and his evil cast a shadow over Manhattan. It would take The Shadow to crack the crime wave of unprecedented height and thwart the sinister machinations of The Wasp.
Yes, a crime wave has engulfed all of New York City. No one knows who is behind it. No one knows of the existence of crime's greatest profiteer, The Wasp. When we meet this strange figure, he has the physical characteristics of a human wasp. His body is long and thin at the waist. He has long insect-like legs and a large bulbous head that dwarfs his lean frame. He speaks in a buzzing rumble, a drone much like an insect's buzz magnified a thousandfold.
This new Napoleon of crime has taken hold of New York. His methods are unique. He sends out his workers to distant towns to lure restless young men to Manhattan with promises of jobs. Once in town, they are coerced into a life of crime by saddling them with debts or by involving them in some crooked scheme. Once they have been lured by the buzz of the Wasp, they become accomplished drones in his criminal activities.
These worker-bees are a bold lot, who pull everything from stick-ups to murder, in first-class style. They pretend to be low-class thugs; no one suspects they are educated gentlemen. And then, when a worker has done his quota of crooked jobs, the Wasp sends him out of New York. No evidence to the identities of the crooks is left behind.
The Wasp communicates with his minions by means of innocent looking messages with no signature. But attached to the paper is a small filmy wasp's wing. The sign of the master criminal known as The Wasp.
As our story opens, we find The Wasp planning another crime. Inside the safe at Herbert Warrendon's home are some valuable papers. Papers that The Wasp has planned to obtain through a rough gang composed of The Wasp's workers in disguise. But they are destined to cross paths with The Shadow. And that chance encounter will lead The Shadow to confront crimedom's sinister mastermind, The Wasp.
Our story is a third of the way over before we meet our proxy hero, Keith Ellerton. He's a young man in his early twenties who lives in the little town of Richmont. He's befriended by well-off Glenn Torbin, who has been successful in New York and has returned to Richmont. Little does Ellerton know that Glenn Torbin is one of The Wasp's lieutenants.
Glenn Torbin is planning to frame young Keith Ellerton for a crime, and thus force him into working for The Wasp. Torbin sends Keith to scout out the weaknesses of old Titus Gorham's estate up on the hill. Torbin is planning on having a gang of robbers break in and steal Titus Gorham's jewels. A crime for which young Keith Ellerton will be framed.
Once again, The Shadow will race to the rescue. He will rescue young Keith from the thugs, and turn the tables on them. Then comes the task of sending Keith to New York to lure The Wasp into The Shadow's trap. It will take all the cunning of The Shadow to safeguard Keith Ellerton from the pitfalls placed before him by the insect-like master of crime.
This story has a lot going for it, but somehow, it falls a little flat. It's not a bad story. And it certainly has potential. But it seems to lack a certain vague something. We have a handsome proxy hero. We have his love-interest, Ruth, the daughter of Titus Gorham. We have an evil villain. But it's hard to work up enthusiasm for the whole package.
The Wasp is made up to be powerful and ruthless. He has knowledge about the most trivial happenings. When something occurs, The Wasp hears about it, sometimes before it occurs. When his workers become compromised, he has no compunctions about having them killed. And similarly with innocent by-standers, their death is not something to be avoided.
The Wasp has a female cohort. Not a moll; a trusted lieutenant by the name of Velma Corl. She's one of the few workers who is privileged to visit The Wasp's lair hidden in the Hotel Trentine. She enjoys killing and is anxious for any new opportunity to kill. She even nearly succeeds in shooting The Shadow.
Female villains are rare in author Walter Gibson's Shadow novels. Gibson nearly always portrayed women as the weaker sex. They were innocent victims, not perpetrators of crime. Author Theodore Tinsley, on the other hand, had a proclivity for female villains in his Shadow stories. But not Walter Gibson. There were exceptions, and this novel is one of them.
The Shadow calls in his agents in this story. Contact man Burbank gets to show up for a couple scenes. Cab driver Moe Shrevnitz, reporter for the New York Classic, Clyde Burke, underworld contacts Cliff Marsland and Hawkeye, and long-time agent Harry Vincent all have parts here. Harry, it is mentioned, comes from St. Joe's County in Michigan. I remember that Harry hailed from Michigan, but I don't remember the specific county being mentioned before. So now we know.
The Shadow appears a few times disguised as Lamont Cranston, but most often appears in cloak of black and slouch hat. He doesn't get a chance to try out his hand at any other disguises, even though we know from previous tales that he is a master of disguise.
And for the New York Police Department, Commissioner Ralph Weston and Inspector Joe Cardona make another welcome appearance. Officially, Weston still doesn't like to recognize The Shadow. After all, as Weston often argued, The Shadow might be anybody in a black cloak. But by story's end, he admits to Cranston that "we owe a debt to The Shadow. He is our constant champion, when it comes to battling such superminds as the Wasp."
This story has a lot of the elements that made the series famous. The visits to the sanctum. The sliding drawer in the rear of Lamont Cranston's limousine that contains The Shadow's black garb. And a similar hidden drawer in the back of Moe Shrevnitz's cab, as well. And we are reminded that Moe's cab is specially wired so he can listen in to the talk of occupants in the back seat. Also, we get to see the special short-wave radio hidden in the back of Cranston's limousine. Using this, The Shadow can contact Burbank without having to find a convenient tobacco shop with a phone booth.
There are a few other things that we remember from other stories, as well. The Shadow uses his tiny flashlight to flash alternating red and green signals to his agents. During battle The Shadow is not above using the dead body of a hoodlum as a human shield. He's done it before, and he does it again here in this story.
There are a few other points of interest. Early in the story, Moe's cab is wrecked. A pretty severe crash the telescopes the hood, smashes the radiator back upon the motor, crumples the doors and cracks the back seat. Yet before long, Moe is back at the wheel of his cab without any explanation. Is this a duplicate cab, complete with special wiring and hidden drawer? Or was the original cab quickly repaired? We aren't told. Personally, I'm thinking that The Shadow has a fleet of these vehicles, and this one was a substitute for the wrecked one.
Something that left me wondering, was an earlier explanation. We were told that other young men, like Keith Ellerton, had been framed by The Wasp. In fact, we are told that The Shadow knew them and could list the names of those who had gone to jail for crimes they had not committed. It's explained that the only way to release these innocent victims of The Wasp is to uncover the criminal mastermind and expose his evil workings. Yet at the story's end, nothing is said about these innocent men still in prison. They shouldn't have been overlooked. A simple sentence or two would have sufficed, just to let us know that The Shadow had made sure the authorities were notified. But we get nothing. Harumph!
A couple of parts were pretty cool. The Wasp has a sting. When he reaches forward and grasps a man's shoulder, there is a sharp sting felt. He does this by means of electric shocks delivered from a metal disk in the palm of his hand that is wired to batteries laced to his belt.
Also, The Wasp sends forged notes, allegedly from The Shadow. He does this by means of a special thick paper upon which are written unsigned notes. But when the paper is held up to the light, the additional warmth from the light bulb causes brownish letters to appear. A mysterious signature that says "The Shadow." And Commissioner Weston, receiving these bogus notes, falls for it. Personally, I think The Shadow should have some counterfeit-proof method of identification. Or maybe we just need a smarter police commissioner.
At the story's end, The Wasp is still alive. In most Shadow pulp mysteries, the bad guy bites the dust at the end. But he escapes in this one. And it was intentionally done, to pave the way for a sequel. Four months later, "The Wasp Returns" was published. Personally, I didn't find this story sufficiently intriguing to warrant a return visit from The Wasp. But since the four-part story involving Shiwan Khan was so popular a few months earlier, perhaps the editors wanted to try it again. But lightening didn't strike twice. This attempt was a dud, and The Wasp didn't survive the second story.
If it were up to me, I wouldn't have approved a second Wasp novel. This first one just felt flat. Even though it had all the familiar elements, it just didn't seem to pull me in, as much as other stories from this same year. Oh well, no one bats a thousand, not even Walter Gibson. I forgive him.
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.