John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #92
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"Murder House" was originally published in the March 15, 1937 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Like a shell-torn battleground, the peace and quiet of a countryside give way to criminal warfare when The Shadow stalks through byways seeking the ruler of the Murder House.
Here’s a fun Shadow adventure that falls roughly in the middle of the pack. That is to say it’s not a great story... nor is it a bad one. It has some good moments and for a nice change of pace is set mostly out in the country. But after you’ve finished reading it, you’ll find there’s not a lot of those moments that make it stick out as anything special. It’s well written and plotted. No glaring plot loopholes, thank goodness. But it’s still just an average Shadow mystery.
The title of this story is somewhat of a misnomer. Yes, there is a murder. And yes, it takes place in a house. So technically, there is a “Murder House.” But the house is out on Long Island, and very little of the story takes place there. Most of the action takes place in the countryside several hours drive north of New York.
It all starts when two crooks named Kip Farrick and Nick Shoyden spy multimillionaire Cyrus Brockbright having a picnic lunch in a wooden glen out in the country a few miles from the small town of Midvale. They’ve determined he picnics there often, and decide he’s a ripe customer for kidnapping. He’s made his millions on Wall Street and they look to make a bundle if they can snatch him out here in the country away from the law.
Kip and Nick are a nasty duo. They are on the lam, having high-tailed it out of New York after croaking Jim Kildean in his gambling joint. The cops are looking for them in Manhattan, and that explains why they are currently hiding out near Midvale. And while they are here, they decide to make a little money. The easy way...
Nick Shoyden, the smarter of the two, decides that it would be better to work a sneaky real-estate swindle on old Cryrus Brockbright, rather than gamble on encountering the law in a kidnapping attempt. The price of land is booming because of a resort just south of Midvale on the Muskatinny Creek. Nick figures that old Brockbright must be scouting out the land hereabouts under the guise of his picnics, intending to buy it before the value skyrockets. Nick’s plan is to buy the land quickly before Brockbright can get his hands on it. Then sell it to Brockbright at a highly inflated price.
And buy up the entire acreage, they do. For a mere seven thousand, five hundred bucks. Their plan is to charge old Brockbright sixty-thousand for it. To do this, they must sneak back into New York and approach Brockbright at his Wall Street offices. But when Nick meets with Brockbright, the old millionaire isn’t so sure he wants to buy the property. He makes plans to meet with Nick Shoyden out at his Long Island mansion that evening, and finalize their negotiations. And that’s where the murder takes place.
The Shadow learns that Nick Shoyden and Kip Farrick have returned to New York. He overhears their plans at the Lucky Seven Club. That night, The Shadow makes his way out to Long Island to be at Brockbright’s mansion when Nick shows up. The Shadow detects crime in the offing. But when he gets there, he’s too late. Cyrus Brockbright sits in his second story study dead, a bullet through his chest. The murderer has fled, leaving no clues. The Shadow has been challenged. The gauntlet has been thrown down. It’s up to The Shadow to accept the challenge and find the merciless killer.
Joe Cardona, ace detective of the New York police force, is on the case. He receives a tip that Nick Shoyden and Kip Farrick were seen up north around Midvale. So, under the guise of taking a long-postponed vacation, Cardona heads towards Midvale. There, he is soon captured by the gang of cutthroats and thrown into a hidden underground cell. No one knows he’s missing; he’s supposed to be on vacation. So who can save him? Yes, it’s The Shadow!
Only The Shadow can discover Joe Cardona’s mysterious absence. Only The Shadow can uncover the underground lair wherein Cardona is imprisoned. Only The Shadow can track down the murderer of Cyrus Brockbright. And only The Shadow can uncover the sinister secret of the seemingly bucolic country glen. Yes, it’s The Shadow to the rescue!
We see The Shadow in this story working mostly alone. Detective Joe Cardona plays a large part, and is joined briefly by Detective Sergeant Markham. There are brief appearances by Rutledge Mann, Clyde Burke and Harry Vincent, but for the most part, this story features The Shadow working by himself. He appears in his oft-used disguise as millionaire man-about-town Lamont Cranston. He also appears as country bumpkin Hiram Robinson. But most often, he appears in his black cloak and slouch hat. Also appearing in this story is Federal Agent Vic Marquette. The Shadow sends for him, and he appears at the end of the story to help mob up the gangsters that The Shadow has routed.
There are a few things worth noting in this story. We get to see The Shadow acting the part of Lamont Cranston at Cranston’s New Jersey mansion. In most stories, we don’t get to see the The Shadow at “home.” It’s a nice change of pace to see the supposed Cranston at the mansion with his chauffeur Stanley and valet Richards.
And then there’s Morse code. Does anybody know Morse code, anymore? Well, back in 1937, it would seem that everybody did. Certainly The Shadow and Joe Cardona. They use it to communicate while Joe is still prisoner of the criminal gang, and before The Shadow can effect his escape.
Have you ever wondered just how expensive that fancy high-powered limousine of Cranston’s was? In this story, we’re told that it cost six thousand dollars. Wow, that was pretty expensive by 1937 standards!
Even if the “Murder House” is only seen briefly, and only involves a single murder, it still makes for an intriguing story. I found it worth my while to read. But if I hadn’t been taking notes as I went along, I doubt if I could have remembered most of the plot. It’s just not all that memorable. While not all that remarkable, it still is an enjoyable way to spend your hours reading The Shadow.
"Death in the Crystal" was originally published in the August 1944 issue of The Shadow Magazine. The crystal of the title refers to a crystal ball. The crystal ball of the Tibetan mystic who calls himself Mahatma Xanadu. Margo Lane’s visit to the Mahatma precipitates The Shadow into a crime trail that only he can unravel.
This is not one of the best Shadow pulp stories. That’s not to say it’s bad. I’ve read better; I’ve read worse. (I’ve read the Bruce Elliott stories.) But this one is merely pedestrian. And it has its flaws, which I’m going to be more than happy to point out.
This story does have its good points. It features the old fake seer act, and that’s always interesting to read about. Author Walter Gibson’s background in magic shows, here. He describes some pretty cool things a mentalist can do with a crystal ball, and he let’s The Shadow explain how they work in detail. The settings and trappings of a mind-reading parlor make for a fun experience, and that’s a definite plus for this story.
As our story opens, Margo Lane has accompanied her blonde friend Sheila Waltham to visit the turbaned seer Mahatma Xanadu at his parlor, located over an East Side tailor shop. They are admitted by Akbar, a huge Turk who stands with folded arms and wears the requisite fez. Inside, Margo is amazed at some of the things Mahatma Xanadu shows her in the small crystal. A splotch of darkness, meaningless to everyone else, signifies The Shadow. And there in the depths of the sphere, as if inscribed by a spirit hand, is the name “Lamont!”
One thing that Mahatma Xanadu doesn’t predict is that Sheila Waltham is soon to be robbed of her jewels. But she is! Armed men break into her apartment, open her safe and find her valuable jewels. Sheila’s maid, Francine, is a willing partner in the crime. The men tie up Francine as they leave, to cover her part in the theft.
Sheila Waltham is later contacted by Mahatma Xanadu, who offers to use his psychic powers to solve the crime, for a reward of five thousand dollars. Sheila is more than happy to comply, and so she and Margo Lane make a return trip to visit the Mahatma. Sure enough, images appear in the crystal ball. Images that show Sheila exactly what happened, including maid Francine’s complicity. When she returns home and confronts the maid, Francine confesses her involvement. Mahatma Xanadu’s reputation as a psychic seems well justified!
What Mahatma Xanadu doesn’t reveal is the current location of Sheila’s jewels. And that’s where The Shadow steps in. While he’s in the process of tracking down the thieves, there is a second crime. This time the jewelry collection of Arthur Lenfield, the antique collector, is stolen. And once again, Mahatma Xanadu offers his services to reveal the perpetrators of the crime. Those five-thousand-dollar reward payments can start to add up pretty fast, at this rate.
The Shadow’s job in all this is to track down the criminals who were seen and identified in the crystal ball of Mahatma Xanadu. He must find the guilty parties, reclaim the stolen pelf, identify the criminal mastermind hidden behind the scheme, and determine the role that Mahatma Xanadu and his faithful servant Akbar play in strange series of events. Whew, that’s a lot to accomplish, and things don’t get a chance to slow down, much.
The pace of the story is another of it’s good points. Things move along very briskly. A lot happens within the confines of this story. All to fit within the constrains of a shorter page-length. Due to wartime paper shortages, The Shadow magazine had been reduced to digest size and the length of the main Shadow mystery was reduced. This one was only a shade over 33,000 words, so author Gibson really had to keep things moving to make it all fit within those limits. And that adds to the sense of urgency; it keeps things exciting and prevents events from beginning to plod along.
But all that still isn’t enough to raise this story above the norm. It’s remains just average. Even an “average” Shadow mystery is head and shoulders above most of the other pulp fare available on the newsstands at that time. The story still had a lot going for it. But it showed its weaknesses, as well. Weaknesses that stood out pretty clearly.
When examining the bad points of this story, one should probably start with the title. Walter Gibson submitted it to Street & Smith under the title “Crime in the Crystal,” and it should have stayed such. Crimes of burglary are indeed witnessed in Mahatma Xanadu’s crystal ball. But no murders; no death. So when the editors at Street & Smith changed the title to “Death in the Crystal” they may have selected a story title that would sell more magazines, but they chose to do so over accuracy.
Secondly, let’s take the name of Mahatma Xanadu. Oh come on! This was written by Walter Gibson, the Shadow author who, over the years, gave us such unique character names as “Lycurgus Mercher,” “Shank Bithlo” and “Dortha.” And the best he could up with is Mahatma Xanadu? If you ask me, he was just coasting, here. He could have easily done better.
Thirdly, let’s take the secret identity of Lamont Cranston. Our criminal mastermind in this story (I won’t mention his name, so as to not spoil your reading enjoyment) discovers that Lamont Cranston is actually The Shadow. We’re never told exactly how he determines that closely guarded secret. We just get some vague mumbo-jumbo about putting two-and-two together. And then, to make matters worse, the villain lives at the story’s end. Instead of going down in a hail of bullets, he remains alive and in police custody. When he’s sent up to the “big house,” won’t he tell all the other inmates? And when they’re released, won’t they come gunning for Cranston? Seems that this is pretty sloppy writing... giving the main bad guy the secret knowledge in the first place, and then letting him keep it in the end.
The Shadow takes to openly switching from Cranston to his black-cloaked self in front of Margo Lane, something that was avoided in her early appearances. “Cranston smiled at Margo’s bewilderment. His black garb stowed away, Cranston was no longer The Shadow.” He even takes to speaking to Margo in the sibilant tones of The Shadow while guised as Cranston. “Though no longer cloaked, Cranston finished his brief speech with the whispered laugh of The Shadow.” Personally, I prefer the early years when agents of The Shadow were as mystified as to his identity as were criminals and the police.
There was never any mention of romance between Lamont and Margo in the pulp stories. (Unlike the radio series were they routinely referred to each other as “darling.”) But in this story, Margo shows a flare of jealousy when Sheila receives flowers with a card signed “Lamont.” It’s mentioned several times in the story, and seems a little strange. There’s never any explanation of why she should care; why she should be jealous. But, she is.
There’s also a scene early in the story, where Margo crashes The Cobalt Club. It causes an uproar in the exclusively-male establishment. There’s only one place where women are welcome in the Cobalt Club, the ladies’ reception parlor. Every place else was off limits to the feminine gender. I’m glad to see Walter Gibson kept that consistent for the entire run of the Shadow pulps. Especially in light of “The Crimson Death” written by Theodore Tinsley several years previously.
I read “The Crimson Death” not long ago, and was disturbed to find a scene where Margo blithely walked into the Cobalt Club accompanied by Lamont Cranston. And no one even raised an eyebrow. It was one of Tinsley’s little slip-ups, which is understandable since he wasn’t the creator and main writer for the series. But it’s heartening to see that Gibson remained undeviating in this matter, even as the years went by.
Other recurring characters appearing in this story are Inspector Joe Cardona, Commissioner Ralph Weston and several agents of The Shadow: Moe Shrevnitz (called Shrevvy, here), Burbank and, of course, Margo Lane. Cranston’s chauffeur Stanley is mentioned several times, but doesn’t actually appear. And Burbank’s appearance, while brief, shows him out of his small, cramped quarters with that switchboard, and waiting for Shrevvy in a drug store. See, he does get out to stretch his legs, occasionally!
Although this story was written and published during World War II, there are only a few passing references to that fact. Mention is made of the current housing shortage. And a disparaging comment about enemy; the Japanese:
“As they have done with everything else, the Japs outsmarted themselves when they raised cultured pearls. No real pearl lover wants the cultured type; besides, it would be trading with the enemy to buy them.”
Speaking of cultured pearls, there’s once scene I should mention. A group of party guests are gathered around Mrs. Willis-Willingham and her pearls. To prove they are real, not cultured, she whips out an x-ray machine to examine the center of the pearls. Now contrast that scene with today’s world, where, when anyone gets x-rayed for any reason, everyone else is safely shielded by lead. No such precautions back in 1944, no sir. People just x-rayed anything in sight with no concern about those stray rays. Are we too over-cautious, these days? Or were they just ignorant and cavalier back then? Maybe they were just tougher, in those days.
So, there you have it. It’s not a great story, by any means. But it’s short and moves right along. There are interesting plot devices and a surprise ending that is OK. The surprise ending won’t blow you away, but it is a moderate surprise.
Putting myself into the role of the purple-robed fakir Mahatma Xanadu, I’ll look into my own crystal ball. I see all; I know all; I tell all. And I’m telling you that this Shadow story deserves a grade of a C. I predict that you’d enjoy a 1930’s Shadow story more. But, if you don’t have one of those available, reading this one will do. Until something better comes along. And now, my crystal grows hazy...
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.