John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #96
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"The North Woods Mystery" was originally published in the February 15, 1936 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Through the towering pines of the Northland moved The Shadow; from lake to lake softly glided his canoe on the trail of the North Woods Mystery.
This story is an absolute joy to read. Although the title is a bit uninspiring, the story itself is one of the best Walter Gibson ever wrote. This would not be a good story to read as an introduction to The Shadow, because it’s quite a bit different from the norm. But if you’ve read a few Shadow stories, and you know a bit about the character, then you’re ready for a real treat with this great pulp tale.
One of the last things I expected, based just upon the title alone, was a visit to Chinatown. But, yup, that’s how we start out. It seems that Chinatown is being flooded with counterfeit money by the evil Kai Luan. Phony mazuma, brought in by Mongols who are being smuggled into the country from China via Canada.
Kow Loon, the curio dealer, has been murdered. His body has been discovered by The Shadow’s good friend, Dr. Roy Tam. Little realizing that the killer, a giant Mongol, is still hidden in the curio shop, Dr. Tam is attacked by the murderer. The sudden attack can only be stopped by one person: The Shadow! And sure enough, The Shadow arrives in the nick of time to save a friend. For of those in Chinatown who owe allegiance to The Shadow, none is more loyal than Dr. Roy Tam.
As the dying murderer lies on the floor of the curio shop, The Shadow speaks to him in his own tongue - Mongolian Chinese. Yes, add another language to the long list of languages that The Shadow has mastered. The dying man speaks the name of his master: Kai Luan. This strange Kai Luan is a mystery person of whom Dr. Roy Tam has heard only rumors. He is a friend of the evil. He sends money to those who would harbor his Mongol fanatics who would do murder.
In the dead man’s pockets, The Shadow finds a roll of crisp counterfeit bills. With this clue, The Shadow will follow the trail far from Manhattan, off to a pristine wilderness in rough, unsettled country. He will track far into the North Woods of Canada and seek out the source of the smuggling and counterfeiting ring.
Assisting The Shadow in this outdoor adventure are Harry Vincent and G-Man Vic Marquette. Also appearing, while the story is centered in Manhattan, is Moe Shrevnitz, cab driver deluxe. Brief appearances by Rutledge Mann and Burbank round out the cast. There is no mention of The Shadow’s other agents, or of the law’s Weston or Cardona. This is basically a Harry Vincent story, with Harry being our proxy-hero. The Shadow just shows up as is needed, while Harry carries most of the action.
It’s nice to see The Shadow in different surroundings. And it’s assuring to see him as the master of the outdoors as well as master of the night. He’s an accomplished woodsman who can paddle a canoe silently and stalk through the underbrush without sound. And again, we see The Shadow’s mastery over animals, as he has strange control over the forest creatures. Before, we’ve seen his mastery of dogs. In this story, he has a strange familiarity with animals of the forest. It seems he really does speak their language, although to go into more detail and explain more would be to spoil the ending. But when you read the story for yourself, you’ll know what I mean.
Walter Gibson submitted this story to his editors at Street and Smith with the rather uninspired title “The Shadow in Canada.” I’m glad they chose to change it to “The North Woods Mystery.” A story this terrific deserves a better title.
This story, being a product of its times, carries the usual racial slurs about the Chinese appearing in the tale. It’s done casually, and was apparently just taken for granted back in 1936. While jarring today, it’s part of the historical context of the story.
There are a lot of people running around in disguise in this story. But in the end, all is sorted out. It surprised me how many things had to be explained at the end. The entire last chapter is devoted to explaining who did what, under what disguise, while other things happened elsewhere. I would have been happy stopping reading the pulp mystery at the end of chapter nineteen. I had forgotten about a lot of the loose ends in all the excitement of reading the story. And in some pulp stories, the reader’s poor memory would have been assumed, and the final wrap-up would have been disregarded.
But I’m glad author Walter Gibson included chapter twenty, and explained how everything fit together. It helped me realize how many things really did need explaining, and how perfectly they all fit together. Gibson did a superb job writing this convoluted story and of keeping everything straight.
If I have one flaw to pick at, it would be part of the characterization of the person who turns out to be The Shadow in disguise. I won’t reveal what disguise The Shadow uses, here, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise ending. But long before the reader is aware that this character is actually The Shadow, that character is described in ways that don’t make sense, once we realize who he really is. It’s a case of being in two places at once. Although we know The Shadow has just arrived in Canada, his disguised character is described as doing certain things that he could not possibly have done. He was in New York, garbed in black and fighting Mongols at the time. But I guess if that’s the worst flaw I can find with this story, then we’re on solid footing, here. It certainly doesn’t distract from the story.
And one last thing. That strange clock in The Shadow’s sanctum is once again briefly mentioned in passing. This is the fourth time it was mentioned, albeit fleetingly. For a better description of the clock and it’s strange concentric moving wheels, you are referred to the 1933 story “The Red Blot.” It’s the first time the clock was mentioned, and it gave a pretty complete description of how it worked without hands. Here in this story, however, we are only reminded that is sits in the sanctum on the table. Just a tantalizing glimpse.
I’d rank this story probably in the top ten Shadow pulp mysteries, if not that, then certainly in the top twenty-five. There’s plenty of action, a mystery that has a very satisfying resolution and a chance to see The Shadow at his most powerful. The Chinese refer to him as “Ying Ko.” The French-Canadians refer to him as “L’Ombre.” But whether spoken in Chinese, French or English, The Shadow is the name of mystery and adventure.
"Death About Town" was originally published in the July 15, 1942 issue of The Shadow Magazine. When death strikes the young gentlemen of the Avenue Club, the guilty party is clear. When that man dies, too, the question becomes who murdered him? Again, the guilty party is obvious, until he also is murdered. What is behind this chain of murders? Only The Shadow is capable of accepting the daunting challenge.
The year 1942 was not a banner year for The Shadow. There were a few high points, such as “Vengeance Bay,” “The Jade Dragon” and “Death’s Bright Finger.” And then there was the other end of the spectrum, which would probably include this story, “Death About Town.” Unfortunately, this is not a great Shadow story. That’s not to say it’s the worst of 1942 — it’s certainly no “The Devil’s Partner” — but it still remains an uninspired Shadow tale.
By this time in the chronology of The Shadow, readers had been subjected to multitudes of murders in some two-hundred fifty pulp mysteries. A murder, all by itself, wasn’t a very remarkable story angle. Yet, that’s about all that this story has going for it. There is very little to make this story remarkable. No ghosts; no mad scientists; no unusual methods of death... nothing to make this tale special. By “Shadow” standards, it’s pretty tame fare.
The story begins with the death of Dana Orvill, member of the fancy Avenue Club. To everyone who sees the killing, it’s pretty apparent that James Laverock is the killer. The Shadow gives chase in his taxi, driven by Moe Shrevnitz, but he loses the man when the police intervene. And there you have chapter one, in a nutshell.
With Laverock hiding out, The Shadow decides to investigate at the Avenue Club. It was outside the club that the murder took place, and both Orvill and Laverlock were members. Harry Vincent and Clyde Burke, agents for The Shadow, are insinuated into the club, where they can keep an eye on things. Soon enough, The Shadow discovers the hideout of James Laverock. When he visits there, Laverock has a visitor, one Wilfred Secane, another member of the Avenue Club. While The Shadow listens, there is a gunshot. Wilfred Secane has killed James Laverock, or so it would seem.
The police arrive about that time, and hear the gunshot. In the ensuing melee, Secane makes good his escape while The Shadow tries to avoid the police. So now, fugitive Laverock is dead and Secane is on the run. Now it’s up to The Shadow to track down Secane. Do you get the feeling that Secane is about to die, as well? Right enough, Secane is stabbed, and this time the police blame... The Shadow!
If all this sounds pretty lame... it is. Mixed into all this chain of killings is something about the Avenue Club’s governing committee, some life insurance policies, and a cafe owner. And in the end, when all is explained, all the pieces come together. You will finally understand what the Avenue Club has to do with a cafe owner, and what the deal is with the life insurance policies on the club members, and how each of the men were actually killed, and by who. But by then, you probably won’t really care.
The recurring characters are a streamlined bunch. That’s probably because there’s wasn’t enough plot to give more agents anything to do. So Harry Vincent and Clyde Burke carry most of the action. Taxi-drive Moe Shrevnitz appears at the beginning and again in the middle of the story. Contact man Burbank appears once, and is mentioned again later. Rudledge Mann is mentioned a couple times, but doesn’t actually show up. And Cranston’s chauffeur appears; we assume it’s Stanley, although he isn’t mentoned by name. And that’s it.
Commissioner Ralph Weston and Inspector Joe Cardona appear, as usual, for the New York Police. Again, as is typical, the commissioner still holds that The Shadow is a myth. He continues to insist iupon that official attitude despite repeated evidence to the contrary.
Dr. Rupert Sayre is mentioned in this story, briefly, as he tends to Clyde Burke’s gunshot wound. Dr. Sayre, as you will remember, is personal physician to The Shadow. He doesn’t show up in Shadow novels very often, and when he does, it’s usually a small part. So it’s always a pleasure to read about his presence, brief though it may be.
There’s no sign of Margo Lane, although her favorite nickname for Moe Shrevnitz, “Shrevvy,” is beginning to take hold. Although through most of the story, he’s referred to by his given name, the name Shrevvy shows up three times.
The Shadow appears garbed all in black, as normal. He also appears disguised as Lamont Cranston, wealthy clubman. The guise seems appropriate here, in that the “man about town” should be included in the story of “death about town.” No other disguises are used, though.
This story does throw in a few familiar items, in the hopes of catching the readers’ interests. The Shadow’s girasol ring is mentioned. His sanctum is visited. And he still uses the flashlight with the colored lens to blink messages to his agents.
One thing that I found interesting in this story is a description of The Shadow’s costume, hidden inside Lamont Cranston’s hat and coat. The black cloak is actually the black lining of his gray coat. When the lining of his gray hat is removed and the hat is turned inside out, it becomes his black slouch hat. But nothing is mentioned of his gloves. I noticed in later Shadow stories, the gloves seem to be ignored. Earlier stories made a point of covering his hands in gloves so that nothing could be seen in the dark. Later stories seemed oblivious to the fact that his hands were ungloved and would stand out. Strange...
There are many Shadow stories that leave you anxious to turn the next page. Some will keep you up, reading farther into the night than you had intended. They are that good. This story is not one of those. Quite to the contrary, it will probably help make you drowsy. It’ll put you to sleep earlier than you expected.
Suffering from insomnia? The doctor prescribes “Death About Town” to put you to sleep quickly and efficiently. I’ll put this story in the bottom hundred of all The Shadow pulp stories. Not recommended.
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.