John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #95
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"The Chinese Tapestry" was originally published in the November 1, 1935 issue of The Shadow Magazine. A dead man who lives, guards the secret of the Chinese tapestry. And The Shadow travels to San Francisco to make sure the right person receives that secret.
Yes, it’s another Chinatown mystery. But this time, the Chinatown is not in New York City. This is San Francisco’s Chinatown. And The Shadow has traveled by plane to San Francisco to meet with his friend Dr. Roy Tam at the request of the arbiter of New York’s Chinatown, Yat Soon.
Dr. Roy Tam appeared in ten Shadow mysteries between 1935 and 1943. His first appearance was in the July 1, 1935 story “The Fate Joss.” This was his second appearance. In his first appearance, Dr. Roy Tam resided in New York’s Chinatown. He admitted having friends in San Francisco, so it was natural that when this story was published four months later that we should find him living there, instead.
Anyway, The Shadow has been flown to San Francisco by his pilot Miles Crofton. Accompanying them is his trusted agent Harry Vincent. Those two agents are his only assistants, here. Plus he has the help of his friend Dr. Roy Tam. That leaves him working without his usual network of agents, but that doesn’t stop The Shadow!
His first stop in San Francisco is to visit Dr. Roy Tam at his office. And Dr. Tam tells him the story of Ku Luan, the dead man who lives. Ku Luan is an aged Chinese who lives within Chinatown. He carries a secret; a secret that he will give to only one man. And until that man appears, Ku Luan had willed himself not to die. Yet, life seeps from his ancient body. Ku Luan puts himself into a self-induced trance to conserve his last shreds of energy. When the right person presents himself, Ku Luan will rouse himself to deliver a secret message. But only when the right person arrives.
Young David Kelroy is that person. It’s David Kelroy whom Ku Luan awaits. Kelroy has arrived from Shanghai that very evening. He carries with him a letter of Ku Luan; a letter and a piece of crimson silk embroidered with a golden pagoda. This is his identification. And when he shows it to the servants of Ku Luan, he is taken into the presence of the celestial who lies at death’s door.
Somehow, Ku Luan knows David Kelroy is present. He rouses himself, and with his last ounce of energy explains why he called for Kelroy. It seems that years previously, when Ku Luan had been in China, he had been close friends with David Kelroy’s father. David’s father is now dead, and Ku Luan is at death’s door. He plans on leaving the secret of his immense wealth to David Kelroy.
Ku Luan presents David Kelroy with an iron ring containing six huge brass keys. He tells Kelroy where he can find hidden a teakwood box with a silver dragon on it. This box will contain the secret hiding place of his fortune - a fortune worth many millions. His message delivered, Ku Luan expires. It is now David Kelroy’s job to locate the treasure from the clues given him. But that job will be harder than he could ever suppose.
One of Ku Luan’s trusted servants isn’t as trustworthy as he appears. And thus, when David Kelroy goes to retrieve the teakwood box, he is attacked by the servant and a hoard of hired cutthroats. Luckily, The Shadow has followed him here, and rescues him from the murderous gang during a furious gun battle. Unfortunately, the teakwood box is missing, and young Kelroy and The Shadow must both seek to find it and discover the hidden message inside.
Exactly what is inside the strange teakwood box with the silver dragon? It’s the Chinese tapestry of this story’s title. It’s a strange silk tapestry made up of twelve silk ornamental squares. Each is twelve inches by twelve inches, and each contains a different oriental design. There are twelve squares in the tapestry, arranged in a three-by-four rectangle. But what is the meaning of those twelve strange symbols? And who will possess the Chinese tapestry?
This all makes for a terrific Chinatown pulp tale. And with most of the agents missing from this story, The Shadow carries the majority of the action on his own. But that makes for a most exciting story.
Assisting The Shadow is Miles Crofton, described as “another agent regularly stationed in San Francisco.” Crofton was a pilot who first appeared in the December 1, 1934 story “The Unseen Killer.” He became not only an agent, but The Shadow’s personal pilot. He appeared in twenty-six Shadow novels, the last one being in the Fall 1948 story “Dead Man’s Chest.” This was his sixth appearance, and his assignment in San Francisco must have been a recent one, because he wasn’t stationed there in any of the previous five stories.
Also assisting The Shadow was his long-time agent Harry Vincent. Vincent appeared in over 250 of the pulp novels, probably more than any other agent. His first appearance was on the very first page of the very first Shadow pulp tale, 1931’s “The Living Shadow,” and he continued appearing right up until the end of the magazine series.
Since this story takes place complete in San Francisco, there is naturally no sign of New York Police Commissioner Ralph Weston or Detective Joe Cardona. But there is a representative of the law in Inspector Romson of the San Francisco Police. He makes several small showings, sprinkled throughout the story.
As for The Shadow, himself, he gets to use his mastery of disguise here. He doesn’t use the name of Lamont Cranston, but he does appear in a guise of an unnamed hawk-faced stranger who bids a hundred thousand dollars on the teakwood box. So, who would have that physical appearance and bid such a large amount of month, other than millionaire Lamont Cranston? He also appears in disguise as Henry Arnaud. He adopts a Chinese guise as a bespectacled old Chinaman. And he even makes himself up to look exactly like Dr. Roy Tam. The old makeup kit really got a workout, here!
There are a few racial slurs in this story which were so commonplace at the time as to escape notice. But in today’s PC world, these denigrating terms for Mexicans and Chinese would probably be excised. They aren’t dwelled upon; they are just mentioned in passing and then forgotten. And so shall I...
And before I forget it, those four rubber discs used as suction cups by The Shadow to scale the outside of buildings appear hear. Even though the climb is no more than a dozen feet, he still uses them. They appeared in forty of the Shadow stories; this was their twenty-fifth appearance. They became one of his signature gadgets, and considering that The Shadow wasn’t nearly as gadget-oriented as Doc Savage, that’s saying something.
Now here’s a little mystery. Nowhere in this story is The Shadow referred to as “Ying Ko,” his Chinese name. Walter Gibson had introduced the name in “The Fate Joss,” written in January of 1935 and published in the July magazine. “The Chinese Tapestry” was written two months later in March (published in November), yet the name “Ying Ko” is mysteriously absent. The term “Ying Ko” wouldn’t appear again until “The North Woods Mystery,” written in August, published the following February. It makes one wonder why. Was Gibson merely trying out the Chinese name in “The Fate Joss?” Perhaps so, and it took him seven months to decide to make it an official part of the mythos.
It all makes for a nice change of pace in a new city. Although, other than the ever-present fog, there’s not much to differentiate it from New York’s Chinatown. Still, there’s intrigue aplenty in this Shadow adventure. How can you turn down a Chinatown mystery?
"The Jade Dragon" was originally published in the April 15, 1942 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Don’t confuse this story with the September 1948 “Jade Dragon,” which Walter Gibson wrote after returning from a two-year hiatus. The two stories have only the cursory surface in common. They are both Chinatown tales, although the later one was set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. This story is set in New York. And the other story was perhaps a bit stronger. But this 1942 entry still has the excitement and magnetic draw that all of Gibson’s Chinatown tales had.
There were only a couple dozen or so of The Shadow’s “Chinatown” adventures, but they have always been readers’ favorites. The lure of the Orient. The thrill of the yellow-peril. These are only part of the reason that faithful readers loved those sojourns to Chinatown. Walter Gibson treated the Chinese with respect. Yes, there were Chinese villains. Yes, sometimes they spoke pidgin English in a sing-song voice. But just as often they took on the protagonist roles, and spoke perfect English without a trace of accent.
Probably the biggest draw of the Chinatown mysteries were the death traps that The Shadow had to successfully navigate. Nearly every trip to Chinatown involved a maze of underground passages, filled with death traps. Falling spikes, ever-closing walls, trap doors and the like. Enough death traps to make Indiana Jones hang up his hat and bullwhip. But not The Shadow. He used his mind to puzzle out the escape from such traps. He used his strength and stamina to work his way free. It may have looked like certain doom for our hero, but The Shadow overcame them all.
This 1942 tale has its own share of death traps. There’s a trapdoor that drops The Shadow into a small room with no doors or windows. From holes in the ceiling emanate a poison gas. There is seemingly no escape. Of course, since The Shadow lives at the end of the story, we know that somehow he does escape.
My favorite death trap in this story is where The Shadow is trapped in evil Shang Chou’s underground headquarters. He must make his escape by jumping down the “Well of Wisdom” to water fifty feet below. There’s no way out of the well. Then, Dragon Cult members pick up a huge half-ton silver idol, Yatku the ancient deity of power. They drop it down the well, straight The Shadow who’s treading water far below. Truly, no escape! It’s death traps like these that made the Chinatown stories such a treat to read.
As Walter Gibson tells it, jumping down that narrow well was quite a feat in itself. If not done carefully, one would strike the stone sides as he descended, which would be fatal. But apparently The Shadow had learned the trick while in the Far East, traveling in disguise as Lamont Cranston. “His travels in India had acquainted him with the famous well jumpers, familiar figures in the courts of many rajahs. The Shadow had tried the trick in India while touring there as Cranston, and had liked it very much. So much, that he had done it often.” What do they call people who enjoy danger for its own sake? Apparently, The Shadow was one of them.
Although this story was published after American had entered World War II, it was written several months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Readers at that time knew Japan was our enemy and China was our friend. This story mirrors those sentiments. The Chinese are dealt with fairly evenly, even though the villain is described as Chinese. I did notice one instance of the thugs being described as “crafty, slanty-eyed” and another where we are told that “to Margo, all Chinese looked alike.” But otherwise, there is little of the 1930’s yellow-peril rhetoric that had previously been so commonplace.
The jade dragon of the title is not a three-dimensional statue. It’s more of a two-dimensional flat dragon shape. Think of a Chinese tangram, or jigsaw puzzle. But in this case, there are twelve pieces. Each piece is triangular, carved of jade and is large enough to fill the palm of your hand. When the twelve pieces are fitted together properly, they form the figure of a dragon.
Centuries ago in China, the twelve pieces had been divided among the faithful mandarins. Over the years, their descendants had let them pass from their possession, the pieces separated and were scattered across the globe. It is said that whoever can reassemble the pieces will control great power. And it is Shang Chou who intends to gather together the twelve jade pieces. He can then return to China, join together the ancient Chinese dynasties and claim the emperor’s throne.
Shang Chou has recovered nine of the jade pieces. Only three remain to be reclaimed. He’s not about to let anything stop him, including robbery and murder. The recent crimes have all shown a distinct Chinese angle, throwing suspicion on Chinatown. The Shadow is in Chinatown, keeping an eye on things. But he has no knowledge of what’s behind it all.
What The Shadow discovers is that a secret society known as the Dragon Cult is controlling Chinatown. And at the head of the hidden group is the evil Shang Chou. The Shadow must infiltrate the underground passages beneath Chinatown and gain secret entrance into Shang Chou’s lair. But he’ll need help.
The Shadow gains secret assistance from within the cult’s domain. Chenma, the niece of Shang Chou, begins sending messages to The Shadow through his Chinatown liaison Dr. Roy Tam. Chenma has the exquisite features often described as China-Doll beauty. As our story progresses and she meets The Shadow, and saves his life, a bit of a romance begins to develop. Could it be that her feelings are shared by The Shadow? Walter Gibson gives us a hint when he writes: “The admiration in Chenma’s eyes was quite reciprocated by The Shadow’s.” Quite.
But let’s not forget that The Shadow already has a female companion in the person of Margo Lane. Margo had been introduced to the pulps ten months earlier in “The Thunder King.” And she’s in this story, as well. Margo and Chenma never get to meet, in this story. And perhaps it’s just as well. There might have been a bit of jealousy flare up. At least, one can imagine.
Margo first shows up at the old uptown house of Herbert Dayland. He’s entertaining forty or so guests in lavish fashion, and plans on showing off his collection of gems worth over a hundred thousand dollars. Little does he realize that among those gems in a piece of the jade dragon. And little does he realize that his home will soon be invaded by a gang of Chinese intent upon the theft of the jewels and the piece of jade. A theft that will leave Herbert Dayland dead and Margo Lane in peril.
The successful theft of that piece of jade will leave Shang Chou with only two pieces of the jade dragon left to acquire. And that means two more raids, each on another gem collector who unknowingly possesses a piece of the jade puzzle. There will be more crime, more deaths and more peril before The Shadow can bring to an end the crime spree perpetrated by Shang Chou
The Shadow gets lots of assistance in this story. Of course Dr. Roy Tam is present in Chinatown, acting as agent for The Shadow. And Margo Lane, being a member of the cafe set, can show up at the various parties where crime is predicted to strike. Harry Vincent, another of The Shadow’s agents, is a clean-cut chap who also frequents cafe society, and also appears at the same social functions as Margo. We also meet long-time agents Cliff Marsland and Hawkeye, who frequent the less-desirable areas of New York. And Clyde Burke, newspaper reporter, gets some action as well. Hackie Moe Shrevnitz helps out with driving duties (and is only referred to as “Shrevvie” twice, thank goodness). Contact man Burbank is mentioned, but doesn’t actually appear.
As usual, the police are represented by Police Commissioner Ralph Weston and Inspector Joe Cardona. Both play large roles in the story. Commissioner Weston no longer believes The Shadow to be either imaginary or many unidentified people, as he did in the earlier stories. Now, he recognizes that only one person wears the cloak and slouch hat. And at our story’s climax, it’s Weston’s bullets which put an end to the diabolical career of our criminal mastermind, Shang Chou. But only after The Shadow winged him first, of course.
I found it interesting that Inspector Cardona didn’t know Margo Lane in this story. The reason apparently lies in the fact that she was fairly new to the series, having been introduced only ten months earlier. And author Walter Gibson kept the timeline faithful to that introduction. He didn’t just have Cardona acknowledge her as though they were long-time acquaintances. Now if Gibson had only been so consistent with her actual introduction. When she first appeared in “The Thunder King,” she was given no special introduction. She just was there, and accepted by Cranston. Now that was jarring to long-time readers.
I’m always interested in the tools that The Shadow uses. In this story, he uses a set of special lock-picking tools. They are mentioned occasionally throughout the pulp series. He also has a special pry-tool that he can affix to one of his .45 caliber automatics, to turn it into a powerful crowbar. This particular tool is rarely mentioned, so I thought I’d bring it up here. In this story, he uses the stubby tool as a jimmy to pry open a trap door.
The Shadow is consistently referred to as “Ying Ko” by all the Chinese he encounters in this pulp tale. This is the name they have known him by ever since 1935’s “The Fate Joss.” There were several Shadow “Chinatown” stories that pre-dated that story, in which The Shadow didn’t carry the Ying Ko name. That part of the mythos had not yet evolved under Walter Gibson’s pen. But after “The Fate Joss,” Gibson was consistent to use The Shadow’s Chinese designation.
The Shadow speaks Chinese, of course. He’s a master linguist who speaks many languages. But of them all, I suspect his mastery of Chinese is the most complete. After all, he spent much time in China. That’s where he got the name of Ying Ko.
I thought it was interesting to note that when The Shadow captures a Chinese thug in this story, he renders him paralyzed through a neck pinch of which Star Trek’s Mr. Spock would be proud. “Black-gloved hands gripped the Chinaman’s throat, suppressing further outcry. Deft pressure on the proper nerve and the Celestial sank, temporarily paralyzed, at The Shadow’s feet.”
In the majority of Chinatown stories, Walter Gibson explains that there is an unwritten rule of Chinese gunnery that revolvers were always kept with an empty chamber underneath the hammer. Apparently this was used as a type of safety catch. And it’s mentioned here, as well, of course. I have no idea if this was actually true of the Chinese, but my friend Art Ferranti tells me: “...that was a common practice in the Old West (still is today for those who ride horseback and carry single action revolvers). Because of the jostling on horseback or guns falling out of holsters not properly secured, the chamber under the hammer was kept empty.” So a six-shooter was in reality only a five-shooter, it would seem. Perhaps Gibson appropriated this interesting tidbit for his fictional Chinese gunners, or perhaps the Chinese actually used the same practice.
The Shadow had been on the radio for several years at the time of this story. And there are some references in the story that seem to relate to the Sunday broadcasts. Some seem intended to tie the pulp series in with the radio series. You can’t help but notice the following sentence: “A reminder, from The Shadow, that crime’s final fruit would be Shang Chou’s own payment for his misdeeds.” This being a reference to the famous radio line “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.”
Yet other passages in this pulp story seem intended to point out how the magazine stories were different from the radio plays. It takes great pains to point out that this version of The Shadow achieves invisibility through different means: “The Shadow became a master of camouflage, a creature of invisibility. Not that he actually elbowed his way through throngs, unseen; he was made of too material stuff for such a practice. Rather, he blended with backgrounds, using what stretches of darkness he could find.” It’s as though the two incarnations of The Shadow had a love/hate relationship. They wanted to be connected, but at the same time, they wanted to maintain their separate identifies as well.
There’s a surprise ending to this story, as is typical in many Shadow mysteries. It’s one that I saw coming. But then, to my surprise there was a second surprise twist. And then a third! Just when you think you have Walter Gibson figured out, he fools you yet again. Certainly the mark of a magician, which of course Gibson was, but also the mark of a well-crafted story by a skilled author.
Will Rogers said, “I’ve never met a man I didn’t like.” To paraphrase him in the context of The Shadow, I can truthfully say that “I’ve never read a Chinatown story that I didn’t like.” Even a weak Chinatown story is better than ninety percent of the other Shadow stories. If you get a chance to read this one, do it. You won’t regret it.
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.