John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #67
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
Death Clew was published in the May 15, 1934 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Just what was the "death clew?" A scrap of paper found by Joe Cardona upon which was written a cryptic message. It was not only the clew to the death Cardona was investigating, but the clew to upcoming death as well!
It all begins when a one-armed man known as Strangler Hunn is being hunted by the police. With a name like "Strangler" Hunn, I should hope the police were after him!
The Shadow is also anxious to find this one-armed murderer who has recently returned to New York. He has his agents scouring the city for the giant thug. Reporter Clyde Burke is keeping an eye on police headquarters, fishing for any clews they gather. Cliff Marsland checks The Black Ship and other underworld dives. Harry Vincent makes the rounds of hotels, seeking Strangler Hunn. But there's no sign of him.
Before either the law or The Shadow can confront Strangler Hunn, he enters the apartment of MacAvoy Crane at the Melbrook Arms and dispatches him with his sole arm. He may only have one arm, but it's a burly arm, well capable of grasping the neck of his victim.
He goes through MacAvoy Crane's papers and makes a note of some sort on a scrap of paper. Then he starts a small fire and burns Crane's papers, keeping the scrap with his note. But Strangler Hunn was seen entering The Melbrook Arms, and the police are on the way. Hearing their approach, he quickly tears up his note and tosses it into the flames. But what he doesn't notice is that one small piece flutters to the ground away from the flames.
The police break down the door and Strangler Hunn is killed in the ensuing battle. Why did he murder MacAvoy Crane? What information was contained in Crane's papers? The secrets died with Strangler Hunn. But there is one clew. Yes, just one: the small piece of paper that failed to burn. The piece that Detective Cardona finds. The paper with the death clew!
If Detective Cardona had only shared this clew with The Shadow, lives could have been saved. But it was not to be. Cardona finds the clew and recognizes it must have some significance. He shows it to Commissioner Weston and they agree to keep it secret as they try to puzzle it out.
Thus, Clyde Burke, in his frequent visits to police headquarters, never learns of the death clew. The Shadow, when he visits Cardona's office in the guise of the janitor Fritz never hears of it either. And thus, more men are doomed to death because of this death clew.
This much, we do learn: MacAvoy Crane was a private detective working for Roscoe Wimbledon. Wimbledon is president of World Wide Aviation Company, and hired Crane to look into the affairs of the now-defunct Universal Aircraft Company. He was trying to track down the main officers of the company, who had fled after the government uncovered their swindle. They had been producing defective aircraft for foreign governments, and had gotten caught.
Roscoe Wimbledon's World Wide Aviation Company has bought out Universal Aircraft and Wimbledon hired Crane to investigate their affairs. Apparently Crane found something important. Something that necessitated his death.
The Shadow enters the picture to investigate and learn who's behind it all, and who hired Strangler Hunn. But without that one vital death clew, he's at a definite disadvantage. More deaths are on the way. Other thugs have been hired by some mysterious mastermind to murder additional men. But why? What is the reason for their deaths? It will take The Shadow to find out. It will take The Shadow to solve the mystery, stop the murders, and unmask the unknown mastermind behind the entire scheme.
Assisting The Shadow in this mystery are New York Classic reporter Clyde Burke, underground contact Cliff Marsland, long-time agent Harry Vincent and contact man Rutledge Mann. Commissioner Ralph Weston, Detective Joe Cardona and Inspector Timothy Klein are all on hand to represent the police. And The Shadow, himself, appears in two of his famous disguises: wealthy world-traveler Lamont Cranston, and slow-witted janitor Fritz.
There are several mentions of some familiar hangouts in this story. The Black Ship and Red Mike's place are both underground dives that appear here. They didn't appear as often in ensuing years, so it's nice to see them again in this early Shadow story.
Even though it would be over three years before readers would learn that The Shadow's true identity is aviator Kent Allard, we do learn in this story that The Shadow is an accomplished pilot. We are told that several years ago he bought a special plane from World Wide Aircraft. What made it special? We aren't told.
And the climax of the entire pulp novel takes place in the skies over Manhattan as The Shadow in his fast pursuit plane takes on the villain of the piece in an air battle that will leave you breathless. So you see, even in these pre-Allard days, we were being given hints. The Shadow was a skilled pilot.
In this story, The Shadow makes four separate trips to his sanctum. That may be a record, although I haven't checked to make sure. Four different occasions to visit the sanctum throughout the story. Pretty cool!
And on one of his visits to the sanctum, his strange clock is again mentioned. Instead of hands, there are three concentric circles, each marked to show the passage of seconds, minutes and hours. I want one of those clocks!
And The Shadow's vial of purplish liquid appears here again. It's not described as "purplish" this time, however. But it's definitely the same. The Shadow presses the small vial to the lips of a rescued man, and as he tastes the biting pungent liquid, a burning new vigor possesses him. Yup, that's the stuff, all right! It's a good thing the DEA wasn't around in those days. If this wasn't some illicit narcotic, I'd be very surprised.
One final thought, in case you're wondering about the spelling of "Clew." As I understand it, back then there were two acceptable spellings: "clew" and "clue." The Street and Smith "house" spelling was "clew" until they bought out a magazine from Clayton publishers called "Clue." I guess to be consistent, they decided to switch from "clew" to "clue." And that's why in later stories, you'll see the word "clue" but in earlier ones, it's "clew."
Xitli, God Of Fire was originally published in the December 1, 1940 issue of The Shadow Magazine. According to ancient Aztec lore, one of their most powerful gods was Xitli, God of Fire. Throughout the years, all record of this ancient deity disappeared, until only rumor remained. But ancestors of the ancient Aztec still believe, and when Xitli returns to lead his tribe of murdering savages, it will take The Shadow to stop him.
Kent Allard is in Mexico City in his room at the Hotel Hidalgo. He hears drums in the distance; drums from descendants of the old Indian tribes: Mayan and Aztec. The drums bring a message. Someone is raiding the tombs of the ancient kings and stealing the buried treasures of the ages.
Kent Allard, as we faithful pulp readers already know, is the true identity of The Shadow. When the world was told that Allard had returned to civilization in 1937, he was hailed as a great hero and a celebrated aviator. (Note: see "The Shadow Unmasks," August 1, 1937 issue of The Shadow Magazine.) But now, only three years later, he has faded into obscurity. The world now remembers him as a once-famous flyer who crashed in the Guatemalan jungles. He looks older; his weary shoulders are stooped, he carries a cane to help with his limp.
Kent Allard has been called to Mexico to help coordinate an air search for a missing expedition. Professor Darius Hedwin and his group of archeologists are long overdue and feared lost in the dense jungles. Allard's expertise is needed to rescue them and return them safely to civilization.
Allard meets with Senor Luis Cuzana, a Mexican official in the presidential cabinet. Also at the meeting are Graham Talborn, a wealthy exporter from New Orleans, and James Carland, an oil operator. The two have been instrumental in the funding and construction of a Mayan museum being built in New Orleans. It is a full-scale reproduction of the great pyramid at Chichen Itza, and will house all the relics that Professor Darius Hedwin uncovers during his expedition.
Senor Luis Cuzana has good news for the trio. Professor Hedwin's expedition has been found. It was ahead of schedule, so stopped at the ruins of Cuicuilco, south of Mexico City, to do some final excavations. The professor thinks he has found evidence there that will prove the existence of Xitli, the long-rumored but never-actually-proven ancient fire god of the Aztecs.
Allard leaves the meeting, his services no longer needed. While Allard is presumably returning to New York, he actually dons his garb of black and becomes The Shadow! Using his wingless autogiro, he flies to Cuicuilco to solve the riddle of the Aztec drums.
It is at Cuicuilco that we meet our proxy hero, the professor's chief assistant, Andrew Ames. He is young, square-jawed of face and broad of shoulders. Ames is suspicious that someone is following the expedition, and ransacking ancient treasures in the trail of the archeologists. It is outside the expedition camp, in the countryside at night, where young Ames is attacked by brigands. He is saved by The Shadow who drops from the sky in his autogiro, and with the assistance of his two Xinca servants, fights off the hoard of banditos. The Shadow, or La Sombra as the Mexican bandits know him, defeats the looting mestizos and has his Xinca servitors assist young Ames back to camp
Professor Hedwin has found the proof he was looking for. He has found the basalt stone that originally made up the throne of Xitli, God of Fire. Andrew Ames, back from his nighttime brush with death, assists the professor to prepare all the relics for shipment to the New Orleans museum. Everything is being shipped back. But what they don't know is that someone is smuggling stolen treasures along with the legal relics meant for the New Orleans museum.
The setting of our story moves to New Orleans and the Mayan museum. Graham Talborn and James Carland have joined Professor Hedwin and Andrew Ames as they returned to the United States. We also meet Fitzhugh Salter, the museum's chubby-faced curator. And we meet Lamont Cranston, wealthy world traveler. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, this is not the real Lamont Cranston. This is the man previously seen as Kent Allard, who has disguised himself as Cranston. This is The Shadow!
And it's a good thing that The Shadow has shown up in New Orleans, because things are starting to heat up. The relics from Mexico are moved into a special room of the museum that simulates the ancient temple of Xitli. But what the others haven't realized is that someone is masquerading as Xitli, the God of Fire. Someone has smuggled a crew of descendants of the ancient Aztecs into New Orleans.
Known as "The Tribe of Fire," this ancient group originated with the Mayas and continued to Aztec times. Much like the Thugee cult of India, members of this cult gladly kill to please their god. The cult still exists today, and has been brought secretly into the country by someone who claims to be Xitli. That someone smuggles them into the temple room of the museum, and there, dressed in the feathered garb of Xitli, commands them to go forth and commit murder!
Only The Shadow can rescue the Aztec gold and jade. Only The Shadow will have the power to overcome the stealthy members of the fire cult. Only The Shadow will be able to unmask the fake Xitli and reveal the true identity of the mastermind who is out to collect millions in stolen Aztec treasure. Only The Shadow, with the aid of his two stouthearted Xinca Indians, can defeat the power of Xitli, God of Fire.
The Shadow is pretty much on his own, in this story. No familiar characters appear in this story. None of his secret agents are even mentioned. Forces of law and order in the persons of Weston, Cardona, Markham, Marquette and the like are all absent as well. The Shadow's only assistance comes from his two unnamed Xinca servants. They provide valuable assistance many times throughout this story, and are The Shadow's only aides in the pursuit of justice.
We get to see a rare glimpse of Kent Allard in Guatemala with the Xincas, in this pulp novel. After leaving Mexico, he returns to the jungles of Guatemala to visit the tribe of which he is the white king. In some stories, Allard is described as ruling the tribe as a white god. But here, the term white "king" is used instead. They don't worship him; they do, however, obey him.
It's possible that The Shadow learned his uncanny techniques of stealth from the Xinca tribe. The Aztec cult of fire and the Xinca servants both demonstrate an amazing power of stealth that is unmatched even by The Shadow. And we know from many previous stories that The Shadow can move so quietly as to be unseen.
The Xinca servants also seem to have an unusual understanding of The Shadow's various laughs. He can communicate to them just by his sibilant laughter. When fighting the bandits in the Mexican countryside, he summons his two servants with a laugh, then countermands the order by a laugh of a different tone. And all while fighting bandits to the death! Amazing what information a laugh can contain.
The Shadow also uses his rubber suction cups in this story. Twice! Both times he uses these strange flexible discs to scale the smooth outside walls of the Mayan Museum in New Orleans. He had started using them less by 1940, so it's good to see them show up again.
After one particularly difficult battle with the Aztec murder cult, The Shadow receives a brain concussion. It's explained that he recognizes the symptoms of a concussion, from past experience. It makes one wonder how many times he received a concussion in his various adventures. Wouldn't the danger of brain damage become an issue after a while? I guess The Shadow must rely on the administrations of his personal physician Dr. Rupert Sayre a lot. That as well as the mysterious phial of purplish liquid…
Oh yes, and let's not forget young love. That's another part of this Shadow adventure. Young Andrew Ames falls in love with lovely Yvonne Carland, niece of James Carland the oil exporter. At the story's climax, she's dress in Aztec garb and tied to a sacrificial stone in the temple of Xitli. It's up to Ames, with the assistance of The Shadow, rescue her. Yes, young love perseveres.
You know, from many previous stories, that The Shadow is the master of many languages. In this story, he gets to demonstrate his mastery of Spanish, Xincan and Aztec languages. I'm beginning to think there is no language which he can't speak!
One final note. It was of concern to me that The Shadow is linked with the two Xinca servants in this story. Time and again, various persons recognize that The Shadow is assisted by two Xincans. This doesn't happen in any other Shadow story. In the other stories, it is always Kent Allard who is linked with the two Xincan servitors. They have appeared in public with Allard before. Everyone knows that Allard has two Xincan servants. So it seems likely that someone in this story should put two and two together and see the obvious link between Kent Allard and The Shadow. But in this story, no one seems to see the obvious. That's the logic of pulp, I guess.
This was an especially exciting story, and certainly a most unusual one. I really enjoyed the battle as The Shadow confronted Xitli, the fiend of flame!
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.