Margo Lane Special
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows! The Knight of Darkness explores deadly enigmas in the Walter Gibson thrillers that introduced Margo Lane into the Shadow pulp mythos. First, The Shadow and Margo Lane (in her pulp debut) confront the deadly lightning of Thor, The Thunder King. Then, The Shadow investigates the strange machinations of the Secret Six whose giant sapphire, The Star of Delhi. is the centerpiece for serial murders. BONUS: The Witch Drums, a long-lost thriller from Orson Welles' legendary Shadow broadcasts! This instant collector's item showcases both classic pulp covers by Graves Gladney plus the original interior illustrations of Paul Orban, with historical commentary by Will Murray and Anthony Tollin, who pays tribute to the late Margot Stevenson, "the Woman who was Margo Lane."
John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #68
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
The Thunder King was originally published in the June 15, 1941 issue of The Shadow Magazine. A mad scientist looses bolts of lightning upon an unwary city, wreaking havoc upon the innocent masses. The Shadow must confront this crazed inventor and risk electrocution by the Thunder King.
When I first read this story, years ago, I was disappointed. The story seemed below average to me. Perhaps I was expecting something special, since this was the inaugural issue for the character of Margo Lane. Perhaps I expected Margo to enter the pulp series with a big bang. But no. No origin story. Nothing special is made about her first appearance. She’s just another agent, and plays a normal role in the story as would any other of The Shadow’s agents. Maybe I was let down by this, and thus judged the story harsher than I normally would.
After an eight-year hiatus, I re-read the story, and discovered that it is a fun pulp story typical of the other 1941 Shadow stories. It’s not great, but few stories of 1941 could qualify as great. “Dictator of Crime” was probably the highpoint of the 1941 stories. And of the twenty-four pulp novels featuring The Shadow that were published that year, The Thunder King was probably somewhere in the top five. It’s got action, it’s got intrigue, it’s got a fantastic invention that threatens multitudes... and it’s got Margo Lane.
The story opens in the lounge of the Hotel Metrolite where Margo Lane awaits Lamont Cranston. She suspects she has been lured there by The Shadow to observe a meeting between Harvey Quade and Louis Wilbert. Wilbert is a private investigator working for Universal Industries. Harvey Quade works for Thorden Enterprises, a competitor. She overhears their conversation, which seems suspicious to her, and when they leave, she follows the two men. They drive off, and she jumps in her coupe to follow. Far out of town, at the scene of a new bridge construction, the car in which the two men ride is suddenly struck by a terrific bolt of lightning. The Thunder King has struck!
Luckily, Margo is at a safe distance, and survives the lightning strike. But she’s soon in peril again when a cleanup crew shows up, intent on erasing any witnesses. And Margo is a witness! Luckily The Shadow shows up to save her; and it won’t be the last time, either. Eventually she’ll be kidnapped by the Thunder King, and it will be up to The Shadow to save her yet again.
Universal Industries, headed by Oswald Kelber, has taken on huge contracts for materials to be used in national defense. The world was at war in 1941, and although the United States had yet to join the conflict officially, production of war materials was ramping up for the inevitable conflict. The Thunder King, whoever he is, seems to be out to destroy Kelber’s factories and prevent him from meeting the terms of his contracts with the government. Who could possibly gain from such cancelation?
Jerome Thorden heads a large business group known as Thorden Enterprises. He was after the same contracts, but he had been underbid by Kelber and his Universal Industries. If Kelber should default on his contracts, Thorden could take them over and make a small fortune. So there we have some motivation.
We also have some clues. A dying thug is about to reveal the identity of his boss. “His name... is Thor -” and he expires before he can say any more. Was he about to say “Thorden?” Hmmm... Suspicious! After another strike from the Thunder King, The Shadow fatally wounds another small-time confederate. His dying words, “I know what you want... the name of the guy you heard me call. I’ll give it... to you. His name is Thor -” And he dies with the rest of the words on his lips. Boy, if we weren’t suspicious before, we certainly should be by now!
What a coincidence! On two separate occasions, the name of the mastermind is about to be spoken when the petty criminal dies! But when it happens a third time, credulity begins to be strained. After Margo is kidnapped, she overhears a conversation between two thugs. “Remember you have orders from Thor -” and then he stops, noticing that Margo is listening. If you get the feeling that author Walter Gibson was trying to point the reader toward Jerome Thorden, it certainly is beginning to seem that way. But the fourth time becomes just too much.
The fourth such occurrence strains the bounds of probability. Two hoodlums are talking once again, and one says “But Bayruth followed orders. He got them from Thor -” Why is it that they always stop talking just at that point? It’s just too darned convenient, and if the reader doesn’t feel suspicious by this time, he should. It seems obvious that Jerome Thorden is not the master criminal, but author Gibson is trying to point us in that direction. Trying too hard, though. And in that way, it fails. If Gibson had been more subtle, perhaps we would have fallen for it. But this is way too heavy-handed. And that makes it one of the weak points of this story.
Just who is this Bayruth that the hoodlum was talking about, you may ask? He’s the actual mad scientist who invented the lightning machine. He’s not the mastermind, who remains a mystery until the end of the story. (Even though we’re pretty sure it won’t turn out to be Jerome Thorden.) Oliver Bayruth is an electrical wizard who once worked for Jerome Thorden. And how convenient! Bayruth takes orders from the criminal mastermind, using his lightning machine to wreak havoc upon the targets assigned by his master.
As it turns out, Bayruth has several lightning machines. One is huge, and is meant for destroying large targets. In one scene, he uses it to destroy a skyscraper! He also has a smaller portable unit, and that’s the one that he turns on The Shadow. Even though the machine is small, it’s still capable of turning out a half million volts. And you’ll be thrilled to see The Shadow take on that power - enough to demolish an elephant - and still survive! That’s one of the really cool highpoints of this story.
Unfortunately, this story doesn’t have enough highpoints, otherwise it could have easily been a real treat to read. As it is, though, it’s just a little too obvious in spots. Like when all signs point toward Jerome Thorden as being the sinister figure behind the plot. It’s just too forced to be believable.
The way the plot is set up, Jerome Thorden is the only person who will profit if Oswald Kelber’s Universal Industries loses their government contracts. And remember the mad inventor wielding the lightning bolts has close ties with Thorden. And the first part of Thorden’s name is spoken repeatedly by henchmen of the hidden mastermind. Author Walter Gibson was trying too hard to point the finger at Thorden, which makes even the most casual reader pretty sure that Thorden will turn out to be a red herring. He will turn out to be guiltless, and the most innocent person in the whole story will turn out to be the guilty party. And sure enough, that’s what happens. The lack of any suspense or mystery in the unmasking is another weakness of this pulp story.
Even with those weaknesses, I did like the story, however. The action takes place on a larger scale than usual, and that’s a lot of fun. Giant lightning bolts, crumbling skyscrapers, defying a half-million volts of electricity and living to tell the tale, fifth columnists who are trying to cripple American industries... it is pretty cool. And Margo Lane gets a fairly large part, which only makes sense since this is her first appearance.
We also get to see chauffeur Stanley, long-time agent Harry Vincent, physician Dr. Rupert Sayre, contact man Burbank and taxi-driver Moe Shrevnitz. Two months previously, Moe was given a new nickname of “Shrevvy” (sometimes alternately spelled “Shrevvie.”) in the pulp stories. This was a carryover from the radio show. On the radio show, Margo had been calling the cabbie-extrordinaire “Shrevvy” since 1937. So when her character was transplanted to the pulps, her nickname for Moe was ready for her.
It’s been said that in the early “Margo Lane” stories, she suspects that Lamont Cranston may be The Shadow, but isn’t certain. If I read this story correctly, she is certain. Note the following lines from this novel: “... Stanley had never identified Lamont Cranston as The Shadow. Others had: Margo Lane and Harry Vincent, for instance.” That seems pretty straightforward; Margo has identified Lamont Cranston as being The Shadow. In later stories, she may have become less certain. But in this one, she knows.
As long as we’re talking about Margo Lane, it should be mentioned that she is found sipping on a Mirage cocktail at the beginning of the story. We’re told that it is a “pinkish concoction that looked like a very powerful cocktail, but it actually contained nothing stronger than grape juice. Margo could drink Mirages all evening without losing any of her wits.” The Mirage was her favorite, being mentioned in two other stories as well. For the curious, there is a Mirage Cocktail in real life. I’ve seen several different recipes, all being different colored, but all contain alcohol. Apparently the non-alcoholic version was strictly an invention for the pulps.
Poor Margo is treated roughly in this story. She’s constantly being pushed around, battered, and being knocked unconscious. And don’t forget kidnapped. Plus in one scene, she gets a good jolt of electricity from the malevolent inventor. “Bayruth kept cackling in great glee at Margo’s contortions.” Boy, I bet that was one time that poor Margo wished her Mirage Cocktail had contained some alcohol.
So, for the curious, exactly what happens, in the final act, to the amazing electrical devices that were created by Oliver Bayruth? It’s left rather vague. Harry is told how to dispose of them, as follows: “The Shadow drew Harry to a corner, gave him instructions regarding the prisoners, the removal of the portable lightning machine, and other matters.” I’m thinking there’s probably a large warehouse somewhere owned by The Shadow. Envision something similar to what is viewed at the end of the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” And in The Shadow’s warehouse sits the now confiscated portable lightning generator belonging to the Thunder King, along with the strange black light device from “The Black Hush,” and myriad other devices gained from years of adventures. Boy, would I like to visit that warehouse!
In summary, The Thunder King is better than I first gave it credit for being, but it has some definite flaws. And in the end, it’s just another Shadow story. Perhaps better than average for 1941, but in the grand scheme of things, looking over the entire nineteen year run of the magazine, this story is nothing all that noteworthy. Still, it is the very first Margo Lane story, and perhaps it should receive some special consideration for that fact, alone.
The Star of Delhi was originally published in the July 1, 1941 issue of The Shadow Magazine. A huge sapphire known as the Star of Delhi is at the center of murder. Not just one, but multiple murders. Horrible, grotesque deaths caused by a strange unknown poison. The Shadow will be tested to the utmost in this strange tale.
This is one of those pulp adventures of The Shadow that fills in some of the gaps a little. It adds a little more detail to the background of our hero and his agents. And that raises it slightly above the standard 1941 pulp fare.
The subject of The Shadow’s power of invisibility always intrigues me. In the pulps, that power is not a hypnotic one, even though the radio series portrayed it as such. But in 1939 and 1940, the four novels featuring Shiwan Khan gave us a clearer idea of how the gurus of Tibet accomplished the feat of invisibility without putting anyone into a trance. In this story, a year later, author Walter Gibson continues the concept and explains:
“Using the system of remaining absolutely immobile, with even his thoughts fixed, The Shadow was practicing the ways of the Tibetan mystics.
“It was their belief that such concentration could produce the equivalent of invisibility. Through experience, The Shadow had demonstrated that complete immobility did reduce an observer’s chances to almost nil.
“It produced the semblance of a power through which he could cloud men’s minds; and many of The Shadow’s enemies had sworn that he had suddenly appeared in the midst of a lighted room before their startled eyes.
“Only a few could claim that they had seen The Shadow vanish, for the simple reason that it was much more difficult the other way about. Though The Shadow could fade rapidly into darkness, he required ideal conditions if he sought to remain on the very ground, unnoticed. Once crooks saw The Shadow, their minds became too excited to be readily quieted.”
Notice the use of the term “cloud men’s minds.” This was an intentional reference to the radio show’s standard opening. And yet, at the same time, it’s made clear that The Shadow does not possess the power of invisibility. Just the semblance of that power - the illusion, or false appearance, of the power. The story makes it clear that THIS Shadow lacks the power of true invisibility, but some of his opponents believe he possesses the actual power. And so the pulp and the radio characters interweave a bit closer and closer.
Since most of these pulp stories were written by Walter Gibson, they had an amazing consistency. Unlike some other pulp tales where many different authors were involved, this series could gradually build up characterization for the agents and their master. The little things we learned about them were not contradicted later by a different writer. So if a small fact is mentioned in one story, we rarely find anything contradictory later. If we read it, we can take it as gospel. One such thing is that Margo Lane’s coupe’s horn plays a musical chime of “East Side - West Side.” A nice touch, even though I don’t remember it ever being mentioned in another story.
And speaking of Margo, it’s been claimed that Walter Gibson introduced her to the pulp magazine series reluctantly, due to pressure from fans of the radio shows who wondered about her absence. It’s said that, at least at first, she was only there as a damsel to be rescued. It’s claimed she was not a competent agent. That belief seems to be overblown, considering that here in only her second magazine appearance she’s described as both brave and competent. “Not that Margo was short on nerve; she could take care of herself in a pinch.” Those are Gibson’s exact words.
An interesting fact about Margo. When we first met her in the pulp series, two weeks earlier in the previous issue “The Thunder King,” she was sitting at the Hotel Metrolite lounge sipping on a Mirage cocktail. Exactly what is a Mirage cocktail, I’ve always wondered. It’s explained in this story that it is a pinkish drink that looks quite powerful, but is actually non-alcoholic. All which goes to assure us that agents of The Shadow would never want to be caught with sluggish reflexes or senses. You never know when they’ll be needed.
Two weeks earlier, in her debut in “The Thunder King,” she didn’t know that Lamont Cranston was actually The Shadow in disguise. In this story, she knows! Early in the story, we are told “Margo also knew that this man who posed as Lamont Cranston was actually The Shadow.” And a little later, “He had a way of treating The Shadow as a different personality than himself, even though Margo had long identified them as the same.”
Then, strangely enough, in future magazine stories she would have no clue that The Shadow disguised himself as Cranston. And sometimes she wondered if there was a connection, while The Shadow took pains to mislead her. Other times, she assumed Cranston was an agent of The Shadow. This dance went round and round for some months, until she consistently was aware of the dual identity. This is one of the few cases where consistency was lacking for a while. But only a short while.
So, let’s get down to the story. This one is about a secret society of six men who meet in hoods and robes. They are the Secret Six. They do not know the identity of each other, except for the leader in whose house they convene their secret meetings. Wealthy financier Armand Lenfell is that leader.
These six men do not meet for sinister purposes. No, they are not a criminal organization. They are a group of philanthropists who are trying to aid foreign refugees. Keep in mind that war was raging in Europe at the time. This organization is set up to buy valuable gems from the unfortunate refugees and give them a fair price on the possessions they are forced to sell.
You might ask yourself, if they are on the up-and-up, why the secrecy? Why the black hoods covering their faces? It doesn’t really make sense, and is never really explained. I guess it just made for good pulpy reading.
Anyway, this syndicate of six has come into possession of the huge sapphire known as the Star of Delhi. Once famous as the principal gem in a Hindu rajah’s crown, the Star of Delhi had undergone a century of travel and transfer, leaving slaughter and rebellion in its wake. Now the Secret Six own it. And so, what do they decide to do with it? Cut it up, of course! (Shake your head in disbelief.)
The Secret Six figure that cutting up this huge one-of-a-kind sapphire into six smaller, common sapphires is a good idea. And these are supposedly men of wealth and good judgment? Is it just me, or does this strike anyone else as a bad idea? A very bad idea!
The way they figure it is this. There have been a series of jewel robberies lately. And because of the robberies, they fear that potential buyers of the refugee gems won’t trust them. Those American buyers might fear the refugee story is false, and the valuable stones are actually stolen gems. To instill trust in their customers, they figure that they’ll cut up the Star of Delhi into six pieces, and make rings for each of them. Each member of the secret society will wear a ring containing a star sapphire from the famous Star of Delhi. And that will mark them as men of integrity. Or, if you ask me, it will mark them as men of stupidity! But it’s pulp, and it’s not necessary to make perfect sense, so we just go along with the concept... begrudgingly.
They contact Roger Sherbrock, a lapidary - that’s gem-cutter to you and me. He cuts up the Star of Delhi and makes it into six rings. The Secret Six get their rings, and they’re happy. Fools! I guess ignorance is bliss.
Anyway, Roger Sherbrock disappears. Was he kidnapped? Did he voluntarily steal away? Where is he? Why did he disappear? All these questions become even more critical when the six men under the black hoods begin to die horrible deaths. Eyes glazed and glaring, faces grinning and bloated, bodies frozen like stone. The signs point to certain poison. But how? And who’s behind it? Yes, this is a job for The Shadow!
The Shadow receives assistance from his usual gang of agents. There’s Margo Lane, of course, in her second magazine appearance. Here, she gets to don a disguise; something that was usually the prerogative of The Shadow. She gets to dress up as a bejeweled Hindu princess, the niece of the Rajah of Lengore. Not bad for only her second time out. The only other person in this story who gets to use a disguise is The Shadow. He appears, as he so often does, as Lamont Cranston.
Other agents appearing here are Harry Vincent, one of The Shadow’s oldest agents, in terms of service, taxi driver Moe Shrevnitz who is starting to be referred to as Shrevvy, and Burbank, the contact man who always seems to be on duty. Also appearing is Dr. Rupert Sayre, who is The Shadow’s own personal physician. He’s not an agent, but is certainly a friend of The Shadow. And let’s not forget limousine chauffeur Stanley. He’s not an actual agent, either. But he unknowingly serves The Shadow. And appearing for the law are the famous twosome, Police Commissioner Ralph Weston and ace detective, Inspector Joe Cardona.
The only gadget appearing, if it can even be called a gadget, is the little flashlight with the colored lenses. The Shadow whips it out to blink signals to his agents. Green causes Moe’s taxicab to come in The Shadow’s direction. Red flashes mean to drop from the trail. The special flashlight is seen in many of the Shadow stories. No sign of any other interesting gadgetry like the rubber suction cups or explosive paste.
One final thing that caught my attention. Smelling salts. In one scene a secretary faints, and Margo produces some smelling salts. What’s with that? Did everyone back in the 1940’s carry smelling salts on their person, just in case? They seemed to appear in stories and movies with great regularity, as though it was a common item in women’s purses and men’s pockets. I do remember them, myself. Back in the 1950’s, when I was a kid visiting the doctor, I remember getting woozy after an injection. (I hate needles.) The doctor pulled out some smelling salts and waved them under my nose. The strong stuff made me instantly alert. But that was in a doctor’s office. Did people actually carry them around in their personal possession? And does anyone carry them today? Maybe people don’t faint as readily, anymore. Hmmm....I did like this story. As mentioned previously, this one is above average for a 1941-era story. It’s a fun story, a tale of theft, betrayal and murder. Adventure along with The Shadow as he finds the mysterious source of the poison and stops the reign of terror before even more innocents die. Just don’t try to follow the logic of cutting up that fabulous stone into six pieces. Keep repeating, “it’s only pulp, it’s only pulp.”
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.