John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #97
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"Crime at Seven Oaks" was originally published in the August 1, 1940 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Crime has broken out in the vicinity of Northdale and the large old house known as Seven Oaks. But there’s more to this wave of criminality than is obvious on the surface. It will take The Shadow to dig below the superficial and unveil the true secret behind the crime at Seven Oaks.
This story falls right about in the middle of the 1940 Shadow pulp fare. There were better stories that year; there were worse. Some of the highpoints of 1940 were two of the Shiwan Khan novels and all four of Theodore Tinsley’s outstanding “Prince of Evil” stories, featuring the sadistic Benedict Stark. Among some of 1940’s more forgettable fare were “The Getaway Ring” and “The Wasp.” The story reviewed here has some pretty cool features, but unfortunately it also has some sections that read slowly.
The pulp adventure starts out with a bang. Right off, we are thrown into a running gunbattle with a gang of criminals. The Shadow arrives in the nick of time to save an innocent man from unprovoked attack. That’s chapter one. In chapter two, we enter the gray stone pillars of Seven Oaks and meet the inhabitants of the aged mansion.
It’s night and a storm has kicked up outside. And inside the large homestead, listening to the wind howl about the eaves, is crazy old Lucretia Melridge. “The wail of the banshee” cackles Lucretia. “The wandering spirit that comes to foretell death! I can see him hovering among the oaks, waiting for someone to admit him!”
Yup, she’s bonkers. But luckily, she has family around, watching out for her. There’s Grover Melridge, the elderly owner of Seven Oaks and husband to Lucretia, and the twenty-year-old twins, Robert and Janice. Also on hand is young Dr. Martin Heverly, the family physician, barely thirty. He’s been called in because Lucretia is becoming more and more mentally disturbed. And that wind outside the house, howling like a wild animal, doesn’t help matters any:
“There will be death!” she cackles. “Death in this house - soon! I have seen the banshee -“
The handwriting is on the wall. There will be death. And mystery! Mystery such as, who is the unknown man who pounds on the door of the mansion at the height of the storm. His bedraggled figure stumbles in the front door, then sprawls full-length on the floor. Who is he? Where did he come from? What caused his concussion?
Now, so far, you’ve got to admit, this story is getting off on the right foot. We’re only two chapters into the novel, and things show a lot of promise. But, it doesn’t last. The story promises us strange harbingers of death in a creepy old house. It promises us a romance between the charismatic mystery man and young Janice Melridge. But it sadly fails to deliver. After a great build-up, the story degenerates into a series of battles between The Shadow and a gang of thugs who inhabit the surrounding countryside.
After a dozen or so chapters where things just kind of coast along, the story finally begins to heat up again, near the end. An old family secret is finally revealed, which answers a lot of questions about what’s been going on earlier, and why. And there’s a pretty cool climax, where the bad guy is finally unmasked. It’s probably not who you thought it was. But he meets a very satisfying and somewhat gristly fate. A well deserved one, too!
But the first few chapters and the last few chapters don’t make up for the rest of the story. It feels padded. It lacks the promised excitement of that spooky house and young romance. And that keeps it from being a really good Shadow mystery. It puts it squarely in the “Okay” category.
One of the things that really makes this story stand out is Vulcan, the huge dark-gray Great Dane. He is a main character, one of the few times that a dog, or any other animal, had such a large role in any Shadow pulp story. He has an intelligence that seems almost human. Vulcan belongs to the Melridge family, but The Shadow meets up with him in chapter three.
Vulcan is a watchdog of the highest order. He is gentle with family members, but is a serious threat to any stranger. To any stranger, but The Shadow, that is. We know from other of The Shadow’s adventures, that he has a strange control over animals. And we really get to see that strange power, here. When he first meets the giant beast:
“The Shadow gave a shoulder roll that tightened his grip on the powerful dog. Even before he struck the ground, he had voiced a sibilant call that reached the dog’s ear. Something in that strange whisper spoke of mastery.”
And from this point on, The Shadow uses Vulcan to assist him. In essence, Vulcan takes the place of The Shadow’s other agents. So you will find no other agents in this story. No sign of Harry Vincent in this story. Or of Cliff Marsland, Hawkeye, Moe Shrevnitz, Rutledge Mann or Burbank. Not even Commissioner Weston or Inspector Cardona appear. Once The Shadow has tamed the ferocious animal, he enlists it as his aide in thwarting crime.
Possible spoiler, here. Readers are nearly always surprised at the story’s end when the master plotter is revealed. But Vulcan knew it all along! If you go back and re-read the story, carefully noting Vulcan’s response to every person he encounters, you’ll see that he recognized the baddie from the very beginning.
Another feature of interest in this story is that it takes place in and around the small town of Northdale, apparently set in New Jersey. The township would appear two years later in another of The Shadow’s pulp adventures, “The Northdale Mystery.” It’s not of major importance, but is worth noting.
One final note of interest. This pulp magazine story refers to itself in one passage, which describes that The Shadow “... went out through a side door, unnoticed by the clerk, who was buried deeply in a magazine that bore The Shadow’s portrait on the cover.” A similar situation also happened in the 1934 story “The Green Box.” The only other time I can recall that the magazine made a self-reference was in 1933’s “Mox.” And by a strange coincidence, that story also featured a dog.
None of the regular cast of characters are present here. The Shadow haunts the surrounding area without assistance from any of his usual aides. No agents; none of the familiar law enforcement figures. None of The Shadow’s disguises. It’s just the black-cloaked form of The Shadow and his canine aide Vulcan.
This is a pretty average Shadow novel by 1940 standards. It kept readers going until another Shiwan Khan or Benedict Stark novel arrived on the newsstands. But it wasn’t the kind of story for which The Shadow had become famous. That’s not to say you won’t enjoy reading it. You will. But you’ll have to push yourself a little, to make it past the doldrums that plague the middle of the story.
Howling wind rattles doors and shutters, whispering voices speak to a crazy old woman. Death will come to Seven Oaks! Sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it? Sorry to say, this story doesn’t live up to it’s introductory chapters. And that’s too bad, because by the time the spectre of death arrives at Seven Oaks, some readers had undoubtedly set the magazine aside for more thrilling fare.
"The Northdale Mystery" was published in the May 1, 1942 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Northdale is a small but lively little town not far outside New York. Yet mystery surrounds this community. The mystery of the bank robbery. The strange destruction of the stolen funds. The real reason for the robbery. And the strange residents of the town. It’s a mystery that only The Shadow can solve.
Okey Shurn works for Bert Skirvel. Bert is a mob boss, a known criminal who has served time, several times, for bank robbery. Now he’s escaped in a prison break and is back at his former business. Okey Shurn is one of Skirvel’s dozen or so spotters. It’s his job to case a town and see if it’s ripe for robbery. Okey Shurn has found such a town: Northdale.
The bank robbery doesn’t go off without a hitch, however. The Shadow is on the scene and thwarts the crime. After a pitched battle between Bert Skirvel’s mob and The Shadow, supported by the local law, the entire gang is mopped up and Bert Skirvel is killed when his car rams into a bridge abutment. The car, filled with unused explosives from the robbery, explodes and all the stolen swag is shredded to atoms. Over a quarter of a million dollars blown into tiny fragments.
The gang was making their way to Arthur Mordant’s estate, in hopes of taking hostages for their escape. Mordant is one of the bank’s largest depositers. He’s an old cuss who hobbles along on his cane, his face nearly completely muffled by a scarf. He’s attended by his hulking servant Klebbert. But the battle between the law and the gang of robbers is carried to Mordant’s mansion, and Klebbert, the servant, is killed during the fracas.
With Bert Skirvel and his gang now gone, let’s look at the remaining townfolk. There’s young Terry Trent, the cashier who was the only bank employee present during the robbery. Rufus Mayberry is head of Mayberry Stores. He owns a summer place near Northdale and also lost big in the robbery. Norman Chalmody is a New York financier who rents a nearby luxurious lodge. He has a beautiful young daughter Corinne Chalmody. Somehow, you just know that romance between Corrine and young Terry Trent is in the ofting. That’s the list of the law-abiding characters.
The more suspicious characters in the story are Jeff Bracy and Sleeper Groth. Jeff Bracy is a private investigator working for Norman Chalmody. But he has a suspicious air about him. And he was seen skulking around when Mordant’s servant Klebbert was killed. Could he have been the one who fired the fatal shot? Sleeper Groth is an unsavory character with a criminal past who currently works for Rufus Mayberry. He was also seen in the dark night when Klebbert was killed. Perhaps he’s the culprit.
Norman Chalmody and Rufus Mayberry don’t appear all that innocent themselves. They are trying to reclaim some funds that they feel old Arthur Mordant fleeced them out of. And Mordant, himself, certainly seems rather suspicious. It’s up to The Shadow to solve the mystery and determine the roles of each of the characters in this pulp story. The Shadow, with the aid of his agents.
Agents for The Shadow appearing in this story are Harry Vincent, Clyde Burke, Burbank and Margo Lane. Harry, Clyde and Burbank play very small parts and are barely seen. Margo, on the other hand, has a large role in this story. By the time of this 1942 tale, Margo knows that Lamont Cranston is a disguise of The Shadow. She first appeared in the pulps a year earlier, and at first had no clue that Cranston was really The Shadow in disguise. Later, she began to suspect Cranston, and The Shadow had to pull various tricks to convince her she was wrong. But by this story, she knows.
Margo Lane was originally brought into the series in 1941 to appease listeners of the radio show, where she had appeared since 1938. At first, she was a somewhat dizzy female who served as someone for The Shadow to rescue. But as time passed, Walter Gibson wrote growth into her character. In this story, she’s an accomplished agent; very competent and cool-headed. Apparently The Shadow has been training her, because we’re told that she disarms a thug using a special wrist clamp that The Shadow has taught her.
The Shadow appears as himself, black cloak, slouch hat and all. He also appears disguised as Lamont Cranston. But he uses no other disguises in this story. And no other familiar characters appear. There is no appearance by Joe Cardona or Commissioner Weston, although the New York Police Commissioner is mentioned several times, but not named.
Remember, in the radio series, The Shadow had the power of invisibility, but not in the pulp series. The closest he came in the pulps was the ability to become “virtually” invisible by remaining especially motionless. This was a trick learned in Tibet and was described in the four “Shiwan Khan” novels published in 1939-1940. It is referred to again in this story. We are told, “Often, The Shadow had been credited with invisibility, a faculty which he could sometimes demonstrate, while motionless, in certain settings.” For more details on this ability, see “The Golden Master,” the first of the Shiwan Khan novels published in the September 15, 1939 issue of The Shadow Magazine.
This is a fun little pulp mystery that I really enjoyed reading again.
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.