John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #86
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
“Treasure Trail” was originally published in the May 15, 1937 issue of The Shadow Magazine. A map to sunken treasure leads to death for the man who owns it. As deaths pile up, only The Shadow will be able to follow the mystifying, twisty treasure trail.
This is a pretty standard 1937 story, which had the potential to be an outstanding story. But it ended up a capable but unremarkable Shadow mystery. It could have used a little more pizzaz. People die, and clues are followed. But that's pretty traditional fare for The Shadow. There are no big surprises, no amazing secrets and none of the scenes smack of the extraordinary. And all of that makes this story just... ordinary. It's still fun to read, but I was hoping for more.
The story opens as an old sea captain enters the exclusive Cobalt Club. He inquires for Lamont Cranston. Cranston is not currently at the club, so the staff encourage him to remain until Cranston can be summoned. Unfortunately, he decides to leave. And just outside the entrance to the Cobalt Club, the man is brutally murdered.
This is a somewhat atypical opening for a Shadow story. It is much more typical of the beginning of a Doc Savage pulp adventure. Those stories would often open with someone seeking Doc Savage's assistance. And that someone would be cut down before he could reveal the amazing secret he had to tell. While routine for a Doc Savage story, this type of opening was rarely used in The Shadow's mysteries.
The dead man in this story is Captain Daniel Cray, skipper of the old five-masted schooner Hatteras. Some years earlier, Lamont Cranston had taken a few cruises on Cap'n Dan's schooner, and the two men had become friends. Then Cray had retired and the Hatteras was junked. To help provide for himself in his retirement years, Captain Cray decided to sell a map he owned. It was a chart showing the location of an old Spanish galleon, sunk somewhere in the West Indies. The parchment showed the location of the sunken treasure ship, the Isabella. He wanted fifty thousand dollars for his map, and he had gotten it.
Just before his untimely demise, Captain Cray had concluded negotiations with Wall Street promoter Morton Baybrook. The sea captain had accepted payment for the chart, but had not yet delivered the old map. That was apparently what he had wanted to discuss with his old friend Lamont Cranston. As our story continues, Cranston returns to the Cobalt Club moments too late. Cap'n Dan is dead and the map can't be found. This is definitely a job for The Shadow!
In going through the dead sea captain's papers, The Shadow discovers that the old salt had been corresponding with Professor Glidden Prumbull. Professor Prumbull was an expert at raising sunken ships. In fact, he was currently in New York working on the task of raising a two-hundred-year old sunken frigate named the Grenadier from the waters of the East River. This was another treasure ship that held around five million dollars in gold. The old ship is scheduled to be raised in a matter of days.
Could Professor Prumbull have something to do with Captain Cray's death? What about Wall Street promoter Morton Baybrook? Could he be involved in the grisly death? Then there's Will Tasper, a friend of Captain Crays' who had once served as mate on the Hatteras. He might have something to do with the missing map and the death of Cap'n Dan. And let's not forget Dorothy Prumbull, beautiful young daughter of the professor. She knows something that she's not telling.
What is the connection between the two sunken ships? Why are workers on the current Grenadier project mysteriously disappearing? What will the police discover when the Grenadier is finally raised? There are lots of questions, but few answers. When the story reaches its climax, all the questions are answered and the master villain, hidden during the entire story, is revealed. The Shadow will have all the answers, and will bring the criminal chieftain to justice.
It seems like following the treasure trail should be a lot more fun that it actually is. It turns out to be the same kind of Shadow story that readers had seen time and again. And maybe readers looked forward to that consistency. But I was wishing for a little something extra exciting. Perhaps an underwater battle. Or maybe some strange methods of murder. Even a secret code would have helped. But no, sadly we get none of those.
What we do get is a respectable Shadow mystery where our black-cloaked hero works his way through the clues, battles his way through the thugs hired by the hidden crook and finally explains everything to the police in the final scene. The one thing that isn't explained in a very convincing manner is why Captain Cray was killed in the first place. As I read the story, I kept thinking that there would be a good explanation at the end. But there wasn't. There was no good reason why Captain Cray had to die. The chief baddie could have gone about with his evil plans without doing away with Captain Cray. About the only thing he accomplished by the sea captain's death was that he got the attention of The Shadow and made him aware of the various crimes. Not a very smart thing to do.
The Shadow has help from some of his usual agents in this story. Burbank appears briefly in his typical role of contact man. Harry Vincent appears even more fleeting than Burbank. Clyde Burke and Moe Shrevnitz also get brief mention. Hawkeye and Cliff Marsland probably get the biggest roles, doing their work in the underworld. Chauffeur Stanley appears once, but gets no special action.
Police Commissioner Ralph Weston and Acting Inspector Joe Cardona appear in the story, and both get plenty of lines. Weston now believes that The Shadow is real, something he steadfastly refused to accept in earlier stories. He still doesn't want to admit his change of heart, though.
Again in this story, The Shadow demonstrates his distressing habit of flinging away his empty automatics. And there's never any mention of his retrieving them. He continues to litter Manhattan with empty .45 caliber revolvers. Residents are probably still finding them even today.
The Black Ship, the notorious gangland dive, is visited in this story. That's noteworthy because it only appeared in two dozen of the three-hundred twenty-five Shadow pulp novels. And this was it's final appearance. After this, The Black Ship was mentioned no more.
Another note of interest is that when readers visit The Shadow's sanctum, they are given a description of how the master of the night exits his hidden den. On one side of the black room sits a huge metal file cabinet. The Shadow slides out the drawers, each automatically locks in a different position, forming a flights of steps leading upward. He climbs that improvised steel stairway, slides back a panel in the ceiling and passes through the secret exit. As the panel closes, the drawers of the filing cabinet glide soundlessly closed and the light is extinguished, all automatically. That's a definite highpoint of this story.
Another highpoint is when The Shadow seems to demonstrate some hypnotic power. Cranston's eyes meet Dorothy Prumbull's. She feels their hypnotic power. She hears his voice: "You will tell where your father is." And she feels compelled to comply.
When The Shadow leaves the hotel, followed by Dorothy, the house detective sees Dorothy but fails to notice Cranston. Why, we aren't told. Did The Shadow use his hypnotic ability to pass the dick without being observed? If so, this would predate the first instance of The Shadow's power of invisibility that was mentioned on the radio series. That wouldn't come for another year. But author Walter Gibson leaves the matter vague enough that it's a matter of the reader's judgement.
The final climactic battle between The Shadow the the master of evil is one that ends in the mastermind's demise at the hands of The Shadow. Often, in stories such as these, The Shadow wounds the villain in the final act, and then the police, who are slower on the draw, down him in a hail of bullets. So technically, The Shadow didn't do away with the bad guy; it was the police. Not so in this story, though. This time, The Shadow fires a single shot, and the bullet drills its way directly into the master crook's temple, killing him instantly.
If you get a chance to read this story, you should take it. This is a typical 1937 Shadow pulp mystery. It's not a stand-out story, but it's a very respectable one. It's a fun one to read, and doesn't take too long at only 40,000 words. You could do worse.
“The Crimson Phoenix” was published in the April 1, 1938 issue of The Shadow Magazine. The villain of this piece is known as "The Phoenix" not "The Crimson Phoenix." Sure, he wears an outfit of red, but he's never referred to by any other name than The Phoenix. So the story title is technically incorrect. But he's still a nasty villain - one of the most sinister The Shadow has ever met.
Our story opens as a broad-shouldered little crook by the name of Leo Barry makes a visit to one of Manhattan's most notorious racketeers, Duke Duncan. Barry is there to try his hand at a little blackmail. He possesses a letter which proves Duncan committed a murder. A murder for which an innocent young man named Jack Skelly sits in Sing Sing, awaiting death by electrocution.
Duke Duncan pays ten thousand dollars of blackmail money to obtain the letter. Not because he fears the blackmail. Duncan realizes that Barry's letter also contains information which he can use to blackmail multi-millionaire banker John Marsley for a million dollars. So the ten-thousand he promises to pay Barry is peanuts!
The Shadow has been trailing Leo Barry, suspecting he is up to something nefarious. He follows Barry and Duke Duncan's underlings to the Midtown Trust Company where Barry removes the original copy of the letter from his safe-deposit box. The exchange is made; Barry receives the money and Duncan's henchmen receive the letter. The Shadow must now manage to read the contents of the letter and discover its secret without discovery by Duke Duncan or his minions.
John Marsley is about to be blackmailed for the contents of the letter. But he's involved in something else as well. Some sinister plot that involves the security of our country! His young daughter Viola and her fiancee Stanley West are about to become involved as well. There will be a coded message that is gained and lost. The code book, which is the only means to read the critical message, also becomes a pawn in this strange tale.
Alice Dodge is in love with the innocent Jack Skelly, who sits in jail awaiting the death chair. She is trying to find the letter that could pin the murder on John Marsley and free the man she loves. And Snap Carlo is the lieutenant of Duke Duncan who is tricked by Alice Dodge and has sworn to end her double-crossing life.
And into all this confusion enters The Phoenix, a strange robed villain clad entire in red, right down to his high peaked hood and thin gloves. The Phoenix is after the million dollar blackmail money. And he's also after the secret coded message from overseas agents of the United States. He's a cruel and sinister genius of crime. It will take all the cunning of The Shadow to outwit this strange figure of crime and save the innocent from a death sentence.
The Shadow appears in disguise as Lamont Cranston briefly, but spends most of this story in disguise as a harmless and inoffensive young man named Peter Lane. This is a disguise that The Shadow never had used before, and never used again. But in this story, he spends most of his time in this disguise and it serves him very well, indeed.
The Shadow is assisted in one scene by his agent Moe Shrevnitz, the erstwhile taxi-cab driver who has long been in his service. Rutledge Mann is mentioned, but never actually seen. And no other agents of The Shadow appear in the story. Nor do any law-enforcement officers of any sort. The Shadow carries most of the action alone in this story.
The story itself was written by Theodore Tinsley, the author who was groomed to do backup duty for Walter Gibson, should the necessity ever arise. Tinsley wrote twenty-seven Shadow novels between 1936 and 1942. This was his sixth entry. He was quite faithful to the characterization created by Walter Gibson, and wrote in much the same style. He is noted, however, for his slightly more lurid style which included a dash more sex and violence.
Tinsley throws in brief mention of Duke Duncan's moll, a breathlessly beautiful woman in a filmy lace negligee. Marsley's daughter Viola disrobes as evil eyes watch through a window. The Phoenix threatens to strip his victims naked and torture them. It's all very tame by today's standards, but steps a little beyond what Walter Gibson would usually write.
Tinsley's Shadow, is slightly less invulnerable, and usually receives a slight wound or two in each story. A bullet slashes across the surface of his wrist, causing a white-hot flash of pain. His foot is caught in the cruel grasp of a bear trap, ripping the flesh. The flame of a revolver shot near his face causes temporary blindness. The Shadow, as described by Theodore Tinsley, is powerful and fast. But he can be hurt.
A few notes of interest. Moe Shrevnitz can listen in to the conversations of the passengers in his taxi. A wire passes from a microphone in the back of the cab through the upholstery of the front seat and up to a tiny earpiece in Moe's ear. He uses that ability to eavesdrop in his one-and-only scene in this story.
We also are treated to several descriptions of The Shadow changing his countenance in this pulp mystery. In some stories, he uses a strange gauze-like mask. In others, some type of putty. But in this story, he uses none of these techniques. In this story, he has the uncanny ability to change his facial features strictly by muscular movement.
"But a ripple passed over his mobile face. His mouth and features seemed to writhe. Without changing anything save the habitual expression of his face, Lamont Cranston also vanished. In his place was a smiling stranger."You may also remember that in his various automobiles, The Shadow has a drawer hidden beneath the seat. This drawer contains his cloak, slouch hat, gloves and twin .45 automatics. In this story, we discover that it actually contains TWO cloaks and hats. The Shadow uses the spare, here, to fool The Phoenix. But the mind boggles at what else may be in those drawers that are haven't been told about.
Let's not forget The Shadow's famous girasol ring. By 1938, apparently it was famous to most of Manhattan, as well. In the early years, The Shadow used the girasol ring as a means of secret identification. But the secret must have been let out by 1938, because when John Marsley sees the flashing fire opal on the finger of Peter Lane, he immediately recognizes him to be The Shadow.
Part of this story involves a secret message from government agents overseas, regarding an international menace. Keep in mind that this threat of war was fictional, and written four years before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Yet the story is strangely prophetic.
"A new and terrible war threatened the peace of the world. It was being deliberately fomented in the Far East. The United States was one of the victims to be attacked... its success depended on a surprise aerial attack without a second's warning."
When Theodore Tinsley wrote this in August of 1937, little did he realize that his fictional premise would become fact with Japan's surprise aerial attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.
Apparently, the color of The Phoenix was unimportant. Even though the title specifies "Crimson," the villain is never so identified in the story. In fact, Theodore Tinsley submitted the story to Street & Smith in 1937 as "The Green Phoenix." But the editors had just received "The Green Hoods" from Walter Gibson three weeks earlier, and decided to change the outfit to crimson. So although all reference to "green" was changed to "red" in the story descriptions, the actual name of the villain was simplified to The Phoenix, with no reference to color other than in the story title. Perhaps an April Fool's joke?
I always enjoy the stories written by Theodore Tinsley. They have that little extra lurid edge that just screams "pulp" to me. And I did enjoy this story, even though the story was half-over before The Phoenix was even mentioned. He certainly made up for lost time, in the second half, though. It all makes the story definitely worth reading.
“Model Murder” was originally published in the June-July 1947 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Model airplanes. Model boats. Model trains. Toy models. At the annual hobby and model show, murder strikes. Not once, but twice!
Bruce Elliott wrote this story. OK, you can stop reading, now. You can stop reading the pulp novel, and you can stop reading this review. You know the pulp story is going to be a travesty upon the memory of The Shadow pulps, and you know this review is going to be a cruel one.
I could say this Shadow novel is bad. I could say it's poorly written. I could say it's poorly constructed. I could say it's implausible to the extreme. I could say it's downright dumb. But I don't need to. I don't need to say any of those things. All I need to say is that it was written by Bruce Elliott. Nuff said...
Still reading? OK, here goes. This was Bruce Elliott's ninth Shadow pulp mystery. And you'd think after doing eight others, he would have started honing his characterization of The Shadow and his cohorts. But no. He's still way off base. Gone is The Shadow's terse greeting to Burbank, "Report." Now it's, "Glad to catch you. I'm going to give you a list of names. I want you to check on all of them. Get right on it, will you?" Say, what?! And Moe Shrevnitz now speaks casually to his chief in a Brooklyn accent: "I thought ya wasn't gonna call on me. Wassamatter, don't ya love me no more?" Oh, brother! Give me a break!
And for the curious, yes, The Shadow actually does appear in this story. That's always one of the first questions, when realizing that Bruce Elliott wrote it. Sadly, that was not always the case. But in this one, The Shadow appears a couple times, albeit briefly. The Shadow plays no part in the finale, however. The murderer is revealed in a scene straight out of a B-movie, in which all the suspects are gathered together in a room. It's Lamont Cranston, not The Shadow, who explains the murder step-by-step and unmasks the killer. In the good old days when Walter Gibson was writing The Shadow, the unmasked killer would have pulled out a gun and tried to escape, only to be withered in a hail of bullets. But in this tale, when unmasked, the killer covers his face with his hands and cries. Yes, that's how bad it gets!
In case you're curious about the plot, the title is a bit misleading. There are no glamorous models, here. No artist's models, no runway models. We're talking about model toys.
It all starts when Lamont Cranston needs a rest. Life has been too hectic and he has wanted to get away for a few hours. So he goes to the model builders' show for a little relaxation. But he doesn't get it, because at the strike of 4 PM, Don Darry is murdered under the mountain scenery of a railroad model. He's found with a chisel in his back.
And within the hour, murder strikes again. This time in a gristly manner. In the machine shop adjoining the main display room, Ira Downs had an argument with a band saw and lost. His head was completely severed from his body. Not a pleasant way to go.
Who is behind these two murders? One man, or two? And why were they killed? Cranston takes up the case and is up to his eyeballs in clues before you know it. Don Darry, the first victim, was a toy inventor. Did his latest toy, a voice-command robot, have anything to do with his death? Ira Downs was a machinist. Why did he commit suicide by band saw? Or did he?
Is the murderer Harry Owen, a prominent toy manufacturer? Maybe young Bruce Bedrick, just out of the Army. How about Richard Brodder - pompous and pigeon breasted member of the hobby club's board of directors. Or the young kleptomaniac whose compulsion is to steal model trains. And then there's the reclusive millionaire John F. Murray, patron of the model club. Whew! It's enough to make the mind spin! Or make your stomach churn.
And when it's all explained, and you've discovered how the second victim got his head cut off by a bandsaw, you'll scratch your head in puzzlement. The explanation makes no sense. I'm going to tell you how the story explains it, and I'm not even going to give you a "spoiler" warning. That's how little respect I have for this story.
Elliott claims that the second victim was killed by bandsaw when he bent over to pick something up, and his neck somehow encountered the blade. He didn't hear the bandsaw running because of background noise. And he didn't see the blade moving because of a strobe light which made it appear stationary. He thought the saw was off. That's his explanation. Doesn't he think the guy would have pulled his neck back when he felt the searing pain of the blade cutting into his flesh? But no, the idiot kept pushing his neck into the bandsaw blade. Kept going until the saw had cut through this throat and neck bones, and the head was separated from the body, to roll on the floor. Talk about a ludicrous explanation!
In this story, Commissioner Weston appears. No mention is made of Inspector Joe Cardona. Several other policemen show up and take up the slack of his absence, however. Burbank is in the story, but here he apparently works for a phone answering service. Moe Shrevnitz appears, but he's only referred to as "Shrevvie" and has acquired a Brooklynese accent. Hawkeye is mentioned once, only by name. Other than that, none of the normal characters from the stories appear. You see, it's just not the same...
Oh yeah, and Lamont Cranston has a house in Manhattan. Not an apartment. Not a room at the club. A house. But no mention is made of his New Jersey mansion.
All of Elliott's stories were shorter than what was normal for Shadow mysteries. This one is a shade under 25,000 words while most of Gibson's were well over 40,000 words.
Originally, this tale was entitled "Deathly Still." For some reason, the editors at Street & Smith changed it to "Model Murder." As if changing the name would help it. To paraphrase Shakespeare's line from Romeo and Juliet, "A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet." I'm confident that in the case of this stinking pile of garbage, he would have said, "This story by any other name would still smell!"
There are some people in this world who like to say, "Look, I just shoved a railroad spike through my tongue." "Look, I just held my hand on a red-hot stovetop!" "Look, I just smashed my thumb with a sledgehammer!" Masochists, all of them. And to that group, I add those who would proudly proclaim, "Look, I just read a Bruce Elliott Shadow novel!"
Only masochists or Shadow completists will want to read this story. The rest of you will want to run screaming from the room!