John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #104
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"Double Death" was originally published in the December 15, 1938 issue of The Shadow Magazine. A corpse is "murdered" twenty-four hours after his actual death. The Shadow enters the case to discover the strange secret and rip away the sinister mask of double death.
This story wasn't written by long-time Shadow author Walter Gibson. It was written by relief author Theodore Tinsley; the eighth of his twenty-seven Shadow pulp adventures. He wrote those stories between 1936 and 1943, giving Gibson a little respite from the constant publishing deadlines. And as with nearly all of his stories, this one starts off with a bang.
Theodore Tinsley liked to begin his pulp stories with some fantastic event taking place. Something that defied explanation and immediately pulled in the reader. Like, for example, people frozen into immobility by a strange green light, as happened in "The Green Terror." Human beings instantly turned into a small pile of blue-gray soot, from "Death's Bright Finger." Yes, Tinsley liked to grab the reader with the fantastic, much like author Lester Dent did with the "Doc Savage" pulp stories. And Tinsley doesn't let us down in "Double Death," either.
This story finds a strange masked figure staging a murder. The murder of a corpse! High atop a rooming house, the mysterious figure lays a wooden plank across the yawning chasm that forms the alley between two buildings. He drags a large sack across that plank to the adjoining building. The sack contains rubberized bags of ice... and the dead body of George Clifford.
Once through the window of the adjoining rooming house, the sinister black figure begins to set the stage for murder. A recording is played of an argument and a gunshot. Neighbors investigate and discover the body. All believe they actually heard the murder; none is the wiser that the George Clifford had been killed twenty-four hours earlier.
Yes, it's a double murder. A man killed secretly once. And publicly killed a second time. It's a strange case that Acting Inspector Joe Cardona investigates. But he had no idea that prominent and wealthy George Clifford, a well-known capitalist and investor, had been actually lying dead while the neighbors heard his murder. But... The Shadow knows!
The Shadow is on the scene early. In his guise as Lamont Cranston, he had been approached by George Clifford regarding an investment. So when Clifford strangely disappeared, the day previously, The Shadow began to investigate. George Clifford had made an investment in a new invention designed by Doctor Jasper Logan.
Dr. Logan's black-ray machine was designed to melt steel. The nation that controlled the black-ray machine would be invulnerable to attack. If it could melt steel at a distance of six miles, that would mean the end of battleships, fortresses, tanks - all the modern means of warfare. If the ray machine worked. And that was the problem.
Doctor Logan claimed that machine was a failure. He claimed it was all a total waste. George Clifford, who had invested $25,000 in the project, was suspicious. He suspected fraud. Perhaps the invention was a success and the doctor intended to keep the invention completely for himself. But now Clifford is dead, and The Shadow is going to find out what's going on.
The Shadow gets to use several disguises in this story. He begins in disguise as Lamont Cranston. Then, as the story unfolds, he allows the gang of murderers behind the double deaths to believe they have killed him. So Cranston disappears and The Shadow next shows up as Kent Allard. This, of course, isn't an actual disguise. Allard is his true identity. He also appears in disguise as a typical tenement thug, and later rents a room under the fictitious identity of one Albert Robinson. The old make-up kit gets a real workout in this story.
The Shadow also receives assistance from several of his agents. Burbank continues to keep The Shadow in contact with his other agents. Clyde Burke helps out by interviewing suspects under his cover as reporter for the New York Classic. Moe Shrevnitz keeps his taxi at The Shadow's disposal. And support from the law comes in the form of Commissioner Weston and Inspector Cardona.
This story has that special pulpy intensity that is identified with Theodore Tinsley. The prose is a little more lurid. The action is a little more over-the-top. The Shadow is a little more powerful, but he also gets wounded more frequently. And there's a female criminal, something Walter Gibson was loath to write.
The female is not the master villain, but she's not just simply his moll, either. She's a willing, eager, participant in crime. She's the gorgeously beautiful young lady who lures men to their deaths. She appears in different guises. She's the shapely, red-haired girl who calls herself Peggy Madison. She's the honey-colored blonde art model known as Pearl Crawford. And at various times, she's also Rita Munson and Betty Gaylord. But beneath those identities, she's cruel and murderous... and beautiful.
When you read a description of Peggy Madison, you can immediately recognize the Theodore Tinsley touch:
"She had changed into a negligee. It was sheer and lacy, with wide sleeves that fell away from the girl's smooth arms. The deep throat of the garment allowed Cranston a glimpse of Pearl's half-concealed bosom."
That's certainly not the way Walter Gibson wrote. His females were innocent and chaste. No hint of sex. Tinsley, on the other hand, often tossed in little spicy tidbits to titillate the reader. His stories offered a hint of sex and violence that Gibson's lacked.
The antagonists in Theodore Tinsley's stories often had masochistic tendencies. They loved to torture, especially when the victim was of the fairer sex. As Tinsley describes a thug named Bump: "He anticipated a torture job. That pleased Bump, especially when the victim was a pretty girl."
It wasn't just the male villains that loved torture. No, bad-girl Peggy Madison did, too! Take, for example, the scene where The Shadow is lying helpless after stepping on a steel plate and being electrocuted. Just the thought of being able to torture The Shadow brings her to a state of near sexual release. In Tinsley's words: "The capture of The Shadow, the prospect of witnessing his immediate torture and death, had brought the blond art model close to the pitch of hysteria."
The Shadow stories written by Theodore Tinsley reveled in mild depravity. Although certainly tame by today's standards, and mild even by 1930's standards, it still really sold the pulps. Those loving descriptions of a hypodermic needle. The visit to a Harlem night spot where marijuana smokers congregated. The view as Peggy undresses. All those were the identifying marks of a Theodore Tinsley story.
Another thing about Tinsley's women. They could die. In Walter Gibson's stories, women were innocent and never were killed. In Tinsley's, women could be bad, and they could die. Yes, Peggy Madison is shot and killed at this story's end. And, surprisingly enough, it's The Shadow's bullet that does her in! Not intentionally, of course. The Shadow is aiming for the masked mastermind when Peggy dashes in front and takes the bullet instead. But it's still rather shocking to see The Shadow kill a woman, even if she was a member of the crime mob, and even if it was an accident.
There are lots of nice touches in this story, things that I don't remember seeing in Walter Gibson's stories. For example, in Cranston's left coat sleeve, there is a concealed zipper. Inside the small pouch is a hidden knife, which The Shadow can use to release himself, if bound. He also has a small portable microphone with a suction cup, which he uses with earphones to listen in on conversations in an adjoining room. There's also a queer-looking gun which spits out a strange vapor. I envision something like that used by The Green Hornet. The Green Hornet gets credit for its first use, however, since the Green Hornet appeared on radio several years before this story was written.
There are a few minor things that Tinsley gets wrong in this story. Both Cranston and Allard smile. In fact, he has Cranston giving a cheery smile. Long-time Shadow readers know that this is just plain wrong. At most, a slight smile might cross his "masklike countenance." When The Shadow was disguised as Lamont Cranston, he was incapable of much facial movement, due to the gauze-like mask upon his face. Or so we were told in many of the early stories.
But I'm sure long-time readers could forgive these minor inconsistencies. Especially when they were offered a black-ray machine that could melt steel, death traps like exploding bombs and electrified steel plates, international spies with luxurious hidden lairs deep underground, beautiful damsels in distress, and evil vixens as cruel as they are beautiful. Theodore Tinsley really gave readers their money's worth.
Read this story, if you get a chance. I know you'll enjoy it. Tinsley continues to give you your money's worth, even today.
"The Robot Master" was originally published in the May 1943 issue of The Shadow Magazine. How can The Shadow survive a battle with an eight-foot man of steel? Even The Shadow's might comes into question when he encounters not one, but two massive robots.
I liked this story. But I was prepared to love it. And it let me down. So, although it carried the promise of a science fiction slant to the usual Shadow adventure, it really turned out to be just a regular crimebusting shoot-em-up. There are a couple really terrific robotic scenes which raise the story above the normal. In one, The Shadow is tracked into a dead-end alley by the robot, and has to fight it out with the monstrosity. That was pretty impressive, especially since The Shadow loses the battle! And in the grand finale, there's an spectacular battle between two competing robots.
But let's get one thing straight right from the get-go. These robots are strictly mechanical machines. There is no sentience. No computerized thought. No science fiction. The robots are just mechanical devices. That was pretty disappointing to me. I was hoping for robots that made some decisions; had a brain. I didn't expect anything exotic like Isaac Asimov's three robotic laws, even though the science fiction author had formalized them the previous year. But I was hoping for some flash of science fiction. Instead, all I got was something from Popular Mechanics.
At first, author Walter Gibson fools the reader into thinking this giant robot has a mind of its own. The professor's robot, which he has named Thronzo, clumps after the old inventor, following its master. The Shadow is trailing after Professor Adoniram Durand. Also trailing the scientist are three thugs who may be out to mug him, or worse. Thronzo, the robot, swings about and chases The Shadow down a blind alley, his mighty arms reaching out, grabbing and closing in a mighty crush. During the battle, Thronzo turns on the three muggers, leaving The Shadow to barely escape. As to the fate of the three hoodlums, they are picked up in his immense metal hands and crushed to death.
At the story's end, we discover the secret of Thronzo. (Spoiler Warning - skip the next two paragraphs if you don't want the end of the story ruined.) It turns out that instead of a brain, everything that Thronzo did was prearranged beforehand. Like a player piano, the robot just walked a preprogrammed number of steps, then turned, then lifted his arms, and so on, as determined by the arrangement of pegs on a music-box cylinder. So while he evidenced some rudimentary intelligence, it was all a trick.
And that means the opening couple of chapters couldn't really have happened. There would be no way for Thronzo to chase The Shadow down that blind alley. Since all movement had to be programmed in advance, there would be no way to know ahead of time that The Shadow would be in that alley. Or how many steps it would take to reach the wall at the end. Or whether The Shadow would dodge left or right. Or where the three muggers would be standing, so as to gather them up in a sweep. So Walter Gibson cheated the readers, here. They don't know it until the very end of the story, and by that time, he hoped they would have forgotten the specific actions Thronzo had taken that could not have been preprogrammed. But it was definitely a cheat, and I think Gibson could have done better.
But let's run through the plot, to give you an idea what happens. The Shadow always makes it his business to check on inventors whose creations might be of interest to the law. Or to crime. And Professor Durand is one of those persons being watched by The Shadow. When Professor Durand goes to Manhattan to visit his lab assistant Timothy Talman, The Shadow is following close behind. And that's where he first encounters Thronzo, a huge eight-foot-tall robot. Made of steel with an armspan of nearly ten feet, and with huge legs, each stride covers five feet! Sounds like your typical science fiction robot that could be seen on countless pulp magazine covers of that type.
As mentioned above, there's a battle between The Shadow and Thronzo. And a battle between three thugs and Thronzo. The Shadow loses the battle, but survives. The three muggers lose their lives to the steel giant. This Thronzo is one mean robot! Nothing can stop him. Later in the story, we see him as he walks through brick walls. He's impervious to machine-gun bullets. Survives ordeal by fire. Is even doused by molten metal and shrugs it off.
Professor Durand's assistant Timothy Talman is murdered by an unknown killer right before Durand's eyes. The hidden murderer rushes from the house and knocks down young Fred Corbin, who was conveniently waiting on the street. He thrusts the gun into Corbin's hands, and makes off. Poor Fred is framed for the murder, and takes it on the lam. Luckily, The Shadow knows he is innocent, and helps him out. How? Why, by getting him a job working for Professor Durand, of course!
While working for the professor, Fred Corbin meets the professor's lovely yet spunky daughter, Sheila. And sparks begin to fly. The good kind. But there are obstacles they must overcome. Young Fred has been framed for the death of Tim Talmon. Sheila doesn't know he is the shadowy figure that escaped after Talmon's death, and Fred doesn't want her to find out. That makes him a perfect candidate for blackmail, and a hidden voice over the phone provides that blackmail. Fred must discover the secrets of Professor Durand's remote control and pass them along to the unknown voice, or face being revealed as a murderer.
Not satisfied with his performance, the faceless mastermind frames Fred for a second murder. This time, Clinton Grenshaw, potential investor in the robot project, is cruelly murdered. The guilty party again pins the crime on Fred Corbin in an attempt to wring the secrets of Professor Durand from him.
Meanwhile, a manufacturer named Rodney Moyne is creating competition for Professor Durand. He claims that he can create a robot superior to Durand's. And he does! He calls it Superlo. When the two robots meet in a fight to the finish, only The Shadow can predict the outcome of the battle. Because, The Shadow knows! The Shadow knows the secrets of the robots! Thronzo's secret was revealed in the previous paragraphs, but the secret of Superlo is totally different. And I won't reveal it here. You'll have to read the story for yourself.
It is a worthwhile story to read, even though as described previously, author Walter Gibson cheats his readers and has things happening that defy the logic of his own story. But forgive Gibson. Look beyond the deception, and enjoy the story. It really is pretty good.
This story features a slimmed down cast. Of all the usual agents, Moe Shrevnitz appears at the beginning of the story, Margo Lane makes a brief mid-story appearance, Commissioner Weston and Inspector Cardona both show up, and that's it. The rest of the agents were all unnecessary, apparently. The Shadow does his daytime work as Lamont Cranston, and his nighttime work in his slouch hat and black cloak.
One of the nice scenes in this story that has nothing to do with the robots takes place outside a destroyed factory. The Shadow has been knocked unconscious, and is captured by four hoodlums. They toss him in their car, and prepare to take him "for a ride." The Shadow comes to in the car, and there is a fierce battle. The car plunges over a bridge railing to the railroad tracks far below. And then to add insult to injury, a thundering locomotive strikes the car just moments after it hits the rails, sending chunks of humanity across the countryside. And, yes, The Shadow escapes. But you'll have to read the story to find out how.
One thing that I found of interest was the mention of some television sets that were in the grand foyer of the Colossus Theater. They were there for the entertainment of the passing guests. Television sets in 1943! Wow, it makes me wonder what would have been broadcast back in those war years. What was being aired on 1943 television that patrons of the theater could watch?
If you get a chance to read this story, I would recommend it. Not because it is such a great Shadow story. It's only average, or maybe just a cut above. But there are a couple pretty exceptional scenes with the robots that make it worthwhile. Too bad Walter Gibson had to cheat the reader to make those scenes work. But pardon him, and read the story anyway. I think you'll agree that even with its false science fiction overtones, it's still a fun way to spend a couple hours.
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.