John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #91
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"The Red Menace" was originally published in the November 1931 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Treasure must be reclaimed... even at the point of death. Death to all who do not follow the cause. Death to The Shadow!
This Shadow story will keep you glued the the pages, staying up way past your bedtime to read just a little bit more. It is one of the top Shadow stories of all-time with an interesting storyline, plenty of action and a few interesting “firsts.” I can heartily recommend it.
As you might suspect, “Red” in the story title refers to the communists. The Russian royalty had been overthrown in 1917 and the communists had taken control of the country. In this story, the Czarists are the good guys and the communists are the bad guys. And the worst of them all is the Red Envoy, a sinister figure who hides his hands within thin red silk gloves and wears a crimson mask that covers the upper half of his face.
It’s the return of Berchik, the messenger of the late Prince Samanov, whom we met in the second Shadow novel EYES OF THE SHADOW. In that story, he was empowered to give all his master’s wealth away. And he did so. But communist agents now want to capture him, torture him, and wrest from him the name of the man who received the jewels. Also returning from that story is Bruce Duncan, the man who actually received those jewels. He returns to aid The Shadow defeat the powers of the Red Envoy.
The plot of this story is two-fold. Communist agents under the control of the Red Envoy are out to get Prince Zuvor, who has escaped Russia with all his wealth and now lives in New York. They are also out to get the secret plans for an aerial torpedo being designed by Professor Arthur Whitburn in his secret laboratory on Death Island. Only The Shadow can thwart the evil plans and defeat the Red Envoy!
This story was only the fourth Shadow novel ever published. And as such, much of The Shadow mythos had yet to be created by author Walter Gibson. But we again meet Claude H. Fellows, the insurance broker and contact man for The Shadow. Fellows is doomed to die in the next story, GANGDOM’S DOOM. This is the last story in which he survives as an agent of The Shadow.
We also meet again Harry Vincent, the agent who was first introduced in the opening pages of the very first Shadow novel. Harry is not yet the accomplished agent that he will become in future novels. But it’s in this story that he meets his one true love, Arlette DeLand. This was not the first time Harry had been in love. Before he had met The Shadow, Harry had been in love; but the girl whom he thought was his one true love had married another man. Since then he had been woman-proof. Or so he thought until he met Arlette. They fall in love, even though she’s an agent of the Red Envoy. She saves his life; he saves hers. And at the story’s end, she leaves him because she knows that she’s not worthy. But she promises to return. Unfortunately, Walter Gibson never wrote that story.
This pulp tale shows us the office of B Jonas again. The Shadow uses the curtained room as a temporary sanctum, as he sits beneath a shaded light and goes over information received from Claude Fellows. Part of the time, he writes his thoughts down in pencil, not the more familiar pen with the disappearing ink. But other times, he pulls out the fountain pen and writes in blue ink that slowly fades as it encounters the air.
It’s interesting to note that The Shadow is ambidextrous. When he writes his thoughts on paper, he starts writing with his left hand. Then switches to his right. He alternates hands, writing much more quickly that way. It’s something I don’t think I’ve seen mentioned before.
In this story, The Shadow controls the powers of hypnosis. He puts one man in a trance and forces him to write a complete confession of his misdeeds. Even when The Shadow has left the room, the man completes the series of hypnotic commands given to him by The Shadow.
Also seen here is the method of communicating secret messages by means of emphasized words. Words over the phone or over radio station WNX. A few words, stressed at intervals, could carry complete instructions. Harry Vincent receives messages from both Claude Fellows and The Shadow in this manner.
We meet Lamont Cranston in this story, but here he’s described as young and energetic. Not the middle-aged and somewhat lethargic millionaire we later come to know. But as he explains to Zuvor, “My age... is deceiving. Like you, prince, I have memories of Russia - as it was.”
He wears the famous girasol ring; the fire opal with a secret in the base. The stone springs back upon a hinge, revealing, in the base of the ring, a gold surface upon which is engraved a seven-pointed star. This is the symbol of the Seventh Star, a secret order of Royalist Russia. At some point in his past, The Shadow has been a member of the group whose members numbered only the most trusted nobles of the czarist regime.
There is a strange dialog that Cranston and Prince Zuvor hold when they first meet. After displaying the secret innards of his ring to the Prince, they carry on a whole dialogue of signs and countersigns. “The stars are bright to-night.” “The brightest stars are the planets.” “And they are seven.” “The seven which shall rule.” Kinda sounds like the “ice is slippery” routine from the 1994 Shadow movie.
The only familiar characters in this story are Lamont Cranston, Harry Vincent, Claude Fellows, Burbank and secret-service agent Vic Marquette. Burbank isn’t bound to his small communications room, but actually gets out into the field and trails a man. Joe Cardona or Commissioner Weston do not appear, nor do any of The Shadow’s other agents. But as mentioned previously, this was an early story and things were still coming together.
The Shadow again gets to show off his abilities at disguise. In this tale he appears as a shabby, scar-faced individual in a dirty sweater. And, of course, his Cranston identity itself is a guise.
It’s interesting to see some early mentions of places and things that readers will begin to find familiar. The underground dive known as the Pink Rat is mentioned, here. This is it’s third appearance. It would continue to show up for thirteen mentions in the pulps. Radio station WNX is mentioned throughout this story. This was a common means of communication between The Shadow and his agents in the early years. In all, it appeared in thirteen stories.
Another first, is the appearance of “The Devil’s Whisper.” This is the strange chemical substance that The Shadow rubs on his thumb and third finger. When he snaps his fingers, there is a flash of bright flame and a sharp explosion. He uses it twice in this story. The first time, it produces a flash of light, a puff of smoke and a hissing noise. The second time is produces the more familiar flame and explosion. As mentioned in previous reviews, this substance really does exist, and Walter Gibson’s knowledge of it comes from his magical background. It fits well into the Shadow’s arsenal.
One unique irregularity that I caught as I read this story... The Shadow writes in a disappearing red ink, not the usual vivid blue. It happens in a scene when he is writing on index cards used by the communist agents, so the color seems appropriate.
This is one of those stories in which The Shadow leaves the confines of the United States. At the story’s end, he travels overseas to Germany. His international movements are always worthy of note.
And, oh yes, The Shadow’s amazing linguistic abilities are shown off here, as he speaks flawless Russian. Just one more for the lengthy list of this linguistic master.
You can’t go wrong with this Shadow pulp mystery. It’s a winner from beginning to end. When you think of The Shadow, this is the type of story you think of. Walter Gibson shines at his brightest, here. The story gets my unqualified recommendation.
"The Black Circle" was originally published in the Spring 1949 issue of The Shadow Magazine. A strange brass coin the size of a nickel. Around the outside, a black band. This secret token of identity for members of The Black Circle will draw The Shadow into one of the most convoluted cases of his career.
The Shadow’s career was just about over -- at least his career in the pulp magazines. This would be the next to last magazine story published. Author Walter Gibson was brought back after a two-year absence to do the last four stories. It was a last-ditch attempt to revive the sagging magazine sales, and while the attempt was doomed to failure, it did return The Shadow to his former greatness.
In the mid-forties, The Shadow started dwindling. The stories started to become more routine and less exciting. The character of The Shadow lost his edge. The stories became shorter and shorter. In the mid-thirties, the average length of a Shadow magazine story was about 45,000 words. This dwindled until by 1948 they were as short as 19,000 words. All this changed with Walter Gibson’s return in mid-1948.
To boost magazine sales, author Bruce Elliott was replaced by the creator and original author Walter Gibson. Gibson was allowed to return the character to that of the old glory days. The magazines were changed from monthly to quarterly, and the stories returned to the longer length; this one runs over 50,000 words. And The Shadow is back. Not just detective Lamont Cranston, but The Shadow -- the black-cloaked master of the night -- returned with all his agents to once again fight crime in Manhattan.
As with the stories of old, we are given a proxy-hero who carries much of the action. In this case, we are introduced to Fred Blanding. Blanding is an ex-GI who served in the Pacific theater. He’s just in from San Francisco, leaves his hotel room to walk to Times Square, and gets lost in the city. He ends up in a Greenwich Village coffee shop, witnessing a crime.
As he sits in Jim’s Coffee Pot, he overhears a beautiful young society girl arguing with two men in tuxedoes. She seems to pass out, and is helped from the coffee shop into a car by the men. Blanding notices that she drops her gloves. In bending down to pick them up, he finds an unusual brass token lying with the gloves. It has a shiny center and rim, with a jet-black circle of some alloy between those two circles. A strange nickel-sized coin.
Strange things are beginning to happen. The two men and the girl have disappeared into a car, the proprietor has stepped out, and the phone rings. Being the only person left in the run-down diner, Fred Blanding answers the phone. A strange voice speaks in a monotone: “It is midnight. Time is up. You must leave at once.”
Fred Blanding realizes the message wasn’t for him, and that he’s gotten himself into something strange and sinister. He leaves the coffee shop and makes his way through the darkened streets. With his jungle training, Fred realizes he is being stalked by several unknown figures in the night. He frantically tries to evade them without success; they are closing in.
A passing policeman is knocked unconscious by one of the hidden thugs. Fred grabs up the cop’s service revolver and a gun battle ensues. Just when things look the darkest, The Shadow shows up and enters the fray. After a pitched battle, Fred is knocked unconscious and taken prisoner by the thugs. The unknown assailants find the unusual brass-and-black token in his pocket and believe him to be one of their gang. They return him safely to his hotel where he awakes, alone and confused, the following morning.
Fred Blanding has been mistaken for one of the Black Circle gang. And this will lead him into danger and intrigue. For this gang is large and commanded by an unknown leader known as The Voice. The gang is responsible for a series of robberies that have been happening in New York in the recent weeks. And they don’t stop at murder.
The series of startling robberies had been engineered with lightning speed. Royal Croft had purchased rare portraits at auction only a week before they were stolen on the day he was shipping them to the Municipal Gallery. A hundred thousand dollars worth of negotiable bonds were taken from the vaults of the Independent Shipping Lines.
The North Island Beach Club was raided and a collection of rubies and sapphires brought to this country by the Rajah of Belapore was taken. Valuable murals by Juan de Vegas, were taken from the new Video Building the day before it opened. A collection of rare postage stamps with inverted centers were stolen from the penthouse of Audrey Cartwright on the day he was to put them on display.
Yes, crime was running rampant in New York, and no one knew who was behind it all. Be we know. We know that The Black Circle, lead by The Voice, is behind the rash of crimes. Now that Fred Blanding has become enmeshed in the situation, it will take The Shadow to extricate him and defeat the hoards that are wreaking havoc among the wealthy of Manhattan.
But it’s not all as straight forward as it seems. Because the gang of thugs who have been getting secret instructions from The Voice are finding that all their stolen treasures are, in fact, worthless phonies. The jewels from the Rajah of Belapore aren’t worth their weight in glass. The portraits, phoney. The securities, counterfeit. The murals, copies. Postage stamps, faked.
Yes, there is apparently a second gang at work. A second gang is switching the original valuables for worthless duplicates some time before the robberies occur. Who is behind this second gang? And how can The Shadow track down two gangs at once?
The Shadow has to pull in nearly all of his agents to help him out with this case. Burbank and Rutledge Mann share duties as contact men. Also appearing are Clyde Burke, star reporter for the New York Classic, Margo Lane, The Shadow’s only long-term female agent, Shrevvy, technically Moe Shrevnitz the sharp-eyed hackie, Harry Vincent, probably the agent longest in The Shadow’s service other than Burbank, and Cliff Marsland, underworld contact. Probably the only “regular” not to appear is that hunchy little spotter and tracker, Hawkeye.
Appearing for the police are Inspector Joe Cardona and Commissioner Ralph Weston. And both are just as we remember them from the earlier years. Cardona is swarthy and stocky and still has his hunches. Commissioner Weston is still brusque and blunders along, achieving surprising success.
The Shadow is also the same Shadow we remember from old. He keeps his cloak, slouch hat, gloves and .45 automatics hidden in a secret drawer beneath the rear seat of Moe Shrevnitz’s taxicab. He still glides through the night undetected by anyone. And, of course, there’s the laugh. Where would The Shadow be without his famous laugh?
But there are some changes, as well. Rutledge Mann no longer delivers reports from the agents to that rundown office building with the “B Jonas” name on the door. Now, he meets with Lamont Cranston at the Cobalt Club, and he quietly reports while the two play chess.
That’s not to say the “B Jonas” office on Twenty-third Street doesn’t appear. Instead of being used as a message drop, it’s now an interrogation room where The Shadow takes a hoodlum to squeeze information out of him. And soon, needless to say, he has the thug spilling his story.
One of the major changes that has taken place in this story is author Walter Gibson’s attitude toward women. In the earlier Shadow stories, innocent women never, never died. And only rarely were there bad women, molls and the like. Usually, women appeared only as innocent victims.
Not so here, however. Much of the story revolves around the murder of the young society girl Kay Kelmore. Admittedly, she wasn’t totally innocent, in that she had been the inside person who paved the way for some society robberies. But she wanted to get out, and was killed because she knew too much.
And then there’s also Babs Marland, who’s bad through and through. She appears in several roles, here. She masquerades as a French maid, Celeste, to help acquire the Empress Josephine Tiara from wealthy old Mrs. Elsa Worthingham. Later she appears as a model for Eric Van Lorden, an artist sculpting the Golden Venus. And in her best role, she appears as a mechanical dummy inside a glass booth -- she’s Madame Fortuna the Automated Fortune Teller.
Yes, we have two females here: one only slightly bad, who is killed, and one who is really bad, and is captured by the police in the end. Things were definitely not like this before. The times, they were a’changing.
One thing brought back from the past, that surprised me, was the hanging lamp in The Shadow’s sanctum. Usually, the lamp has been described over the years, as sitting on the black desk, casting a blue glow onto the polished surface. Only twice before was it described as a hanging lamp (“Hands in the Dark,” from 1932, and “Murder House,” from 1937). But apparently Gibson remembered, because it is again described as hanging in this story.
An ability of The Shadow that was rarely seen in other stories, is artistic ability. Here, he sketches a face in his famous vivid blue ink. He only has a brief recollection of the face, and a few descriptions from others, but he produces a very lifelike portrait from such slim information. The drawing fades away, as is with all of The Shadow’s blue-inked messages, but we are left with one more amazing ability of The Shadow.
One of the neatest parts of the story for me was the Penny Arcade, known as Gameland. It plays a large part in the story, and the descriptions of the slot-machines, games with anti-aircraft guns, skee-balls, football games and a shooting gallery all evoke fond memories.
And then there’s the Madame Fortuna machine. It’s a life-size mechanical figure of waxwork that represents a gypsy seated behind a narrow table. On the table are several playing cards. You put in your nickel and the figure comes to life. It breaths, the head moves, and the hand moves back and forth, finally resting on one of the playing cards. From a slot comes a card with your fortune.
This is how the members of The Black Circle receive their orders. They insert, not a normal nickel, but one of the special brass tokens. The machine detects the difference and dispenses a special card with instructions from their hidden leader, The Voice.
Members of the gang make their reports to The Voice also at the Penny Arcade. They go into the miniature recording studio and record their reports onto a disc for their leader. These records are later collected and delivered to The Voice. Yes, this Penny Arcade is a central hangout for The Black Circle. And a pretty cool one, too!
I really enjoyed this story. It didn’t seem like a 1949 story. There were only one or two references that would date it. It could easily have come from the 1939-1942 era. It’s sad to realize that after this, there would only be one more Shadow magazine published.
Gibson was back in top form, and was ready to continue on with more Shadow stories. It’s too bad he was only allowed one more.
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.