John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #103
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"The Romanoff Jewels" was originally published in the December 1, 1932 issue of The Shadow Magazine. The greatest array of wealth in the entire world - the vast hoarded jewels of the Romanoffs - is at stake when two violent factions square off in a bloody battle that even The Shadow will be challenged to restrain.
This is one of the classic Shadow pulp novels, and with good reason. It spans the globe -- America, Moscow, Paris, the Atlantic and back to America. It's a key issue in that the origin of The Shadow's mysterious girasol ring is described for the first time. It features The Shadow at his most powerful and bloodthirsty, before times and editorial decree lessened the body count. Yes, for all these reasons, the story is a classic. But more important than any of those reasons is the overriding one: it's simply just a superb, rousing adventure with The Shadow. This is one of those Shadow stories that you owe it to yourself to read.
Yes, this is the story you've heard about that reveals the origin of The Shadow's girasol ring. The mysterious fire-opal that changes color. It's one of the famed Romanoff jewels, given to The Shadow as a momento of friendship by the authentic owner. Of course, years later, author Walter Gibson gave this ring a differing, conflicting origin. The ring was sometimes said to have come from South America, a gift to Kent Allard from the Xinca indians. But this story came first, and for now we'll go with this origin story.
As our story opens, we meet the first round of main players at the home of millionaire Tobias Waddell. First, there is Marcus Holtmann, who has just returned from Russia. He learned some pretty amazing secrets in Russia. And he actually saw the famed collection of jewels that had been seized from the Romanoff family -- yes, saw them with his own eyes. Then there is Parker Noyes, attorney, who has been introducing Holtmann around town. And Frederick Froman, wealthy young adventurer. And finally, David Tholbin, man with a mysterious past. All of these are about to be mixed up in the search for the Romanoff jewels.
You see, there's a sinister plot underfoot. A plot to discover the hiding place of the famous Romanoff jewels. The greatest hoard of wealth in all the world! Those vast possessions which the Revolutionists had wrested from the last of the Czars! And once the plot has succeeded, and the evil plotters have discovered the secret vault where the jewels are stored, then what? Why, steal them, of course!
After leaving the home of Tobias Waddell, Marcus Holtmann, the man with the secret, disappears. He has been captured and is being tortured to reveal the secret hiding place of the treasure. And in a hidden dungeon room far below ground, he finally cracks and confesses all to his evil torturers. And now the race to gather the treasure is on.
Our story switches to Russia. This is post-revolutionary Russia. The Czar has been overthrown; the Bolsheviks are now in power. We meet Michael Senov, a royalist. A faithful Czarist, he was once a member of the secret police and joined the Bolshevist movement as a spy. Now that they are in power, he stays with the party, known as Comrade Senov a faithful Red. But secretly, he is still loyal to the Czarists. And there is also Ivan Motkin, the brutal representative of the new government, who has been given the duty of guarding the Romanoff jewels.
When the evil powers in America send secret word to Senov where the jewels are hidden, he gathers his forces and attacks the highly guarded secret vault. With a great loss of life on both sides, Senov succeeds in capturing the entire collection. Ivan Motkin, faithful Red who was supposed to be guaranteeing their safety, is then set upon Senov's trail to track down and recover the stolen gems.
Meanwhile, the powers in America are heading toward Europe the take possession of the jewels that they have conspired to acquire. Whew! It's quite a story. The action travels from America to Russia to France. Then back across the Atlantic to America. And a trail of dead bodies is left the entire way. And following that blood-soaked trail is The Shadow!
The Shadow appears in this story as Lamont Cranston and Henry Arnaud. But mostly, he appears as his black-cloaked self. Author Walter Gibson also tried out a new disguise for The Shadow in this story. It was the "old man" disguise that became known as Phineas Twambley beginning with the very next story, "Kings of Crime." The Shadow appears only once in this story using the disguise, and is described as a tall, gray-haired, benign old man who is deaf and walks with a cane. Gibson decided to discard the deafness, but kept the rest of the disguise and used it in ten subsequent Shadow pulp novels, first calling him Phineas Twambley and later Isaac Twambley.
Also appearing here are Stanley, the chauffeur, Burbank, Harry Vincent and Cliff Marsland. Cliff has a nice part in the story, traveling to Paris. As the story explains, Cliff is familiar with Paris. He was a veteren there during the World War and speaks fluent French. As a matter of fact, at the end of issue #9 "Mobsmen on the Spot," Cliff was heading back to France on his honeymoon. Cliff's wife was rarely mentioned in the pulps, and that includes this story. Here, it's as though she doesn't exist.
This was Cliff's sixth appearance in the pulp magazine series. Three of those were very minor appearances, so reader's weren't too familiar with the character. His early depiction is a bit different that from what readers later saw. This is a younger and more headstrong Cliff Marsland than we are normally used to seeing. As we are told in the story, Cliff has an adventurous spirit who prefers action to craftiness. For this reason, he serves The Shadow only in special situations. In later stories, he settled down, and became of more general use to The Shadow.
The Shadow's mastery of languages is on display, again. Russian; French; German; The Shadow reads them all. And when The Shadow speaks in Russian, his accent is perfect. As we've learned in other stories, he's a master of languages.
There are some pretty amazing hideouts, dungeons and death traps in this story. It seems that just about every old house that The Shadow enters has some sort of underground chambers. Once he goes down to the cellar, he always seems to find a hidden entrance that leads even farther below. There are always multiple levels of underground lairs in these houses. Certainly a cool concept, but one that starts to strain credulity after a bit.
One of the things author Walter Gibson is known for is his love of word-play, codes and anagrams. He worked one into this story, in the name of one of the major players. Frederick Froman is known as F.O. Froman. Rearrange the letters and you get "Romanoff." Yes, he's of the Russian nobility, and proud of it.
One of the interesting things about this story -- and here's warning of a mild spoiler, so read skip to the next paragraph if you wish -- the unique thing is that there really are no good guys in this story. Just about everyone is a bad guy. There's no proxy hero to identify with. On one side, there's the Bolsheviks, commonly referred to as 'Reds', who are currently in power in Russia. They are portrayed in this tale as a cruel and bloodthirsty lot. On the other side there are the Royalists, or Czarists, who are loyal to the dethroned royal family. Here they appear to be a sneaky, brutal bunch. And the two sides are battling to gain possession of the Romanoff jewels. The reader really can't identify with either side, so the only group left to root for is The Shadow and his agents. There are a couple minor characters in the story that seem relatively benign, but most of them are dead by the end of the story. A young lady lives, but that's only because author Walter Gibson tried to avoid violence toward women. And she was such a minor character that she had only nine lines of dialog in the entire story.
So, what happens to the tremendous collection of jewels in the end? The Shadow's operatives haul them away and... OK, here's another spoiler. Read on at your own risk, or skip to the next paragraph. The Shadow takes them to his sanctum, into the laboratory which we rarely get to visit, and dissolves them in a powerful acid. Yes, they are destroyed. But that's because they are worthless, sparkling glass. The real Romanoff jewels have been scattered across the globe long ago. The cause of so much death and destruction is now gone. And the only true Romanoff jewel lies upon the third finger of The Shadow's left hand -- the girasol ring!
A final note of interest, at the climax of the whole story, The Shadow is assisted by two masked operatives. Why they are masked is never explained. There is no need to hide their identity. And it's the first time I can remember that The Shadow masked his aides. Hmmm... Just another mystery, I guess. One the solution to which only The Shadow knows...
If you have already read this story, you know it's one of the all-time great Shadow pulp adventures. If you haven't enjoyed it, yet, you really should take the time to sit down and enjoy it. It's one of the early tales, and one of the important ones. You owe it to yourself... read it!
"Crime Under Cover" was originally published in the June 1, 1941 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Spies in our nation's capitol, Washington, D.C. They slink about under cover so no one notices them. Lawmakers are unaware of their presence as they go about their devious crimes. Only The Shadow can stop their plans for death and disaster before it is too late!
I must admit, this story didn't appeal to me. So much of it seemed forced. The action was perfunctory. The plot twists, you could see coming a mile away. I would count this among Walter Gibson's lesser efforts of 1941... or of any year, for that matter.
Gibson loved puzzles and codes. That was part of what drew him to magic, I suppose. So when he learned about a new "manufactured" language called Esperanto, he felt obligated to write a story around it. And this is that story. Personally, I found using Esperanto here to be distracting and thought it made the story bog down. But Gibson must have loved it.
Gibson had mentioned Esperanto in his 1934 story "The Embassy Murders." In that story, his characters jeered it as a failed attempt at an international language. This is the second Shadow story to include Esperanto, and here it is not merely mentioned, it is an integral part of the story. Characters routinely speak in Esperanto, and Gibson seems to take great joy in including translations. He even includes an article at the end of the story that explains the history and structure of the artificial language. Five years after this story, Gibson again used Esperanto in his Shadow tale "Malmordo." Malmordo was the name of the international criminal, and his name refers to "something that gnaws" in the Esperanto language.
The plot? There's this eccentric old inventor, you see... And he's invented a device that military powers around the world are clamoring to acquire... It's worth over a million dollars to those governments... And spies are trying to get it... Say, does this sound familiar yet?
What's the ultimate weapon of war? Well, in 1941 it was apparently poison gas: "There are certain governments that would prefer to keep poison gases as an effective offensive weapon, and they wouldn't care to have the Neutralizer get into circulation as a defensive measure. We know for a certainty that such nations have agents operating in this country." So, if there was only some way to neutralize them: "Poison gas, most horrible of war weapons, would be a forgotten menace if this test went through."
Interesting how times change, and our vision of the most horrible weapon of war changes with it. Today we have so many other terrible bio-weapons and nuclear weapons that poison gas seems pretty tame. So when you read this story - if you read this story, and I don't recommend it - you have to put all of this into historical perspective.
Anyway, our story takes place in the capital of our nation, Washington, D.C. The Shadow has traveled there, along with Moe Shrevnitz, Cliff Marsland, Burbank and Harry Vincent, to look into the mysterious circumstances surrounding Professor Ardlan's invention called a Neutralizer. It tests poisonous gases, identifies them, and provides a vapor that neutralizes them. Foreign spies are after the device - spies who speak Esperanto so that they can't be identified by country.
Our proxy hero in this tale is Jerry Croft, young assistant to Professor Ardlan. He is diverted from meeting the professor by a team of Esperanto-speaking spies. All so that they can capture or destroy Ardlan's invention. He is assisted by his newly-acquired friend, Harry Vincent, agent of The Shadow. Failing in their attempt, the foreign spies do finally succeed in discrediting the invention during a government test. The test fails and Professor Ardlan is in disgrace.
Who is the hidden spy chief? Could it possibly be Congressman Howard Anderton, who supposedly wants the device for the government? Maybe millionaire manufacturer Rufus Bradwell, who had purchased a share in the developing invention? Or mysterious Kurd Malga, the potential superspy? Only The Shadow can unveil the master mind behind the devilish scheme. Only The Shadow can save the valuable invention for the future defense of our country!
In this story, Gibson presents us with a female spy. Yes, a female villain. "She was sleek, catlike, dark of eyes and hair, the very sort who might figure in schemes of international intrigue. Malga addressed her as Freda..." This is most unusual for a Gibson-authored Shadow mystery. Gibson's females were always innocent. But this one is definitely not innocent. However, her part is a small one; she is introduced so that a call can be faked to our proxy hero Jerry Croft. After that, she is ignored. At the climax of the story, when the entire gang is rounded up, she isn't mentioned. Did she escape, or was she included in the round-up? Gibson doesn't say.
It would seem that good old Burbank finally got out of his claustrophobic switchboard room and saw a little action. The mention of his skirmish was so brief I almost missed it. It was just a casual comment that "Burbank, who had been with Cliff Marsland in the truck, the night before..." Burbank rarely gets to do anything other than pass along reports from agents to The Shadow. Too bad we didn't get more description of his adventure in this story.
Whenever another language is used in a Shadow story, author Walter Gibson always includes The Shadow's name in that language. In French, he was "L'Ombre." In Spanish, he was "El Ombre." In China, "Ying Ko." In the Gypsy language, "Yek Ushalyin." And now, in Esperanto, "La Ombro." Of course five years later in "Malmordo" The Shadow's name in Esperanto was given as "La Ombrajo." A contradiction? Maybe just a different part of speech? I'm no Esperanto expert, so I can't say.
This was the last tale of The Shadow before the introduction of Margo Lane. The next issue was her first appearance in the pulp. Maybe this would have been a good story in which to introduce Margo. It certainly needed something. Maybe Margo would have pepped the story up a bit.
This story gets my recommendation... to avoid it like the plague! There are so many better Shadow stories out there, why inflict this one upon yourself? Of course, if you have in interest in Esperanto, this would be the story custom written just for you. For the rest of us... you've been warned!
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.