John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #105
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"Doom on the Hill" was originally published in the November 15, 1934 issue of The Shadow Magazine. It’s a classic mystery tale from the peak years of The Shadow’s pulp adventures. Out in the country, two miles from the small town of Chanburg, a large old house sits on a hilltop. And before our story ends, the owner of that house will have met his doom. A gang of thugs from New York will also meet their doom on that same hill. And an unidentified dead body will be found; the mysterious body of some unknown man who has also met his doom on the hill.
Harry Vincent, secret agent for The Shadow, is returning to New York from a visit to his home in Colon, Michigan. He’s driving back in his trim coupe. A local service-station attendant suggests a backroads short-cut. Harry takes the shortcut, and coming around a turn in the road discovers a dead body lying at the edge of the dirt road. The man has been shot through the heart.
Harry doesn’t disturb the evidence, but backtracks to a house he saw earlier. There, he telephones the local sheriff - a husky man by the name of Tim Forey. Sheriff Forey accompanies Vincent to the scene of the crime, only to find that the body has disappeared. And thus, the mystery begins.
This is a murder mystery in the classic mold. There are lots of weird goings-on, strange sounds in the night and plenty of suspects to go around. This is not your typical Shadow tale where our hero battles thugs, crooks and gangsters. A gang of thugs do show up in the last quarter of the novel, and The Shadow mops them up nicely. But the story is really about identifying the murderer and discovering his motive.
Harry Vincent is our proxy hero in this story, and that’s a nice change of pace. Usually, the proxy hero is some character who we’ve never met before. We are expected to relate to this new person, become emotionally invested in his welfare, and then let it all go at the end of the story. We know the proxy hero will disappear and never show up again. So it’s nice to have a regular recurring character be the proxy hero. We are much more familiar with him, and can develop an emotional attachment easier.
Harry Vincent was the proxy hero in the very first Shadow novel, 1931’s “The Living Shadow,” and he once again is assigned the role. The only other proxy hero who was rewarded with additional appearances in The Shadow stories was Bruce Duncan. He appeared as proxy hero in “The Eyes of The Shadow” and then later appeared in two more Shadow novels: “The Red Menace” and “Atoms of Death.”
As with any good murder mystery, there are plenty of suspects. And they all act suspiciously and have various motives. First there’s the house at the bottom of the hill - the one which Harry first visited to make his report to the police. It’s the house of Grantham Breck, a retired lawyer. Old Breck is absent when Harry arrives. Could he be the dead man that Harry found?
The house also contains three servants. There’s Craven, the butler. Johanna, the housekeeper. And Adele, the cook. All three behave strangely, and make excellent suspects in a murder case. Craven creeps stealthily through the house at night. What’s he up to? Johanna has strange fainting spells. And at most convenient times, too. Adele stocks canned foods, but there are no labels on the cans. Yes, it’s a strange group. But it doesn’t end there.
Old Grantham Breck has an only son. Young Elbert Breck is supposedly in New York, but has been seen in nearby Laporte. He’s a n’er-do-well who has squandered his money and gotten into trouble. He shows up the day after the murder and moves into the house. If his father was truly the disappearing murder victim, he will inherit everything. That’s certainly a motive, if I’ve ever heard one.
Those are just the suspects within the Grantham household. But there are others, as well. There’s Zach Hoyler, the railroad station agent. There’s Perry Nubin, the railroad detective. And let’s not forget crazy old Ezekiel Twinton who owns the house up on the hill. He constantly pesters the sheriff, claiming there are prowlers around his place.
There are plenty of suspects in this whodunit, and our proxy hero Harry Vincent is right in the thick of things. Sheriff Forey has Harry stick around, since he’s an important witness. Harry is staying at the Grantham home, where he can keep an eye on things. And before you know it, he’s hearing sounds in the dark, following secret visitors at midnight and finding more dead bodies.
Naturally, Harry calls in The Shadow. He does this through seemingly innocent telegraph messages to his investment broker. When Rutledge Mann, another agent of The Shadow, receives those messages, he quickly contacts The Shadow. And The Shadow jumps in his autogiro and heads off toward the small town of Chanburg.
It’s great to see that autogiro in use. I missed it in the later stories. It’s perfect for flying in at night and making a silent landing in the darkened glen beside Grantham’s old house. The Shadow uses the aircraft several times as he leaves the vicinity and returns later.
I thought it was interesting to note that The Shadow carries a portable short-wave outfit in the autogiro. I don’t think I’ve seen that mentioned before in other magazine stories, but it certainly makes sense. He would need it, when on trips, to gain contact with Burbank and deliver instructions.
Author Walter Gibson really gets to show his knowledge of trains and railroading in this story. Much of the tale takes place along the railroad tracks, at the railroad station and in the railcars. Gibson really makes these scenes come alive; they throb with excitement. So it’s only natural that the climactic gun-battle at the end takes place at the railroad station. All topped off by grim hand-to-hand conflict in the cab of a thundering locomotive. A conflict from which The Shadow emerges victorious, of course.
There are a lot of nice little touches in this story. Little things that will become standard in later Shadow novels. There’s the use of those rubber suction cups, which assist The Shadow in ascending the outside walls of buildings. They first appeared in 1932’s “The Crime Cult.” He uses them here to climb the outside walls of the Grantham house to Harry Vincent’s second-story window.
There’s also the secret messages from The Shadow. Sometimes these messages are in written form. They are written in a special disappearing ink which can be read for a few minutes, and then fades away to permanent nothingness. There are also messages delivered over radio station WNX. The announcer, obviously in the employ of The Shadow, slightly stresses certain key words as he read the commercials. While any normal radio listener would never suspect anything amiss, any agent of The Shadow would immediately detect the hidden meaning in the announcement.
The timeline of this story is also of interest. It doesn’t occur in a straightforward fashion. There’s a gap of five days in the middle, when nothing is happening. We are told that The Shadow returns to New York during those five days, to continue his battle there with unfinished crime. We aren’t given more details, but apparently another adventure took place in New York during the five-day hiatus. Perhaps it is a story that Walter Gibson detailed in another magazine story published around the same time.
I was amused, at the story’s beginning, to find Harry Vincent at a gas station. He was giving the attendant five dollars for the gas. Fill it up for under five bucks! Ah, for the good old days. And I bet he didn’t pump his own, either. Surely the attendant not only pumped the gas, but also washed the front and back windows and checked the oil. Maybe the tire pressure, too. My how times have changed!
There’s some unfortunate racism in this story. Old Ezekiel Twinton, owner of the house on the hill, has a Chinese cook. So it’s not surprising to find some racial slurs regarding Orientals (or Asians, as we would say today) in this 1934 story. And later, young Elbert Grantham says to Harry, “You’re white...” In this context, it means “honest, fair and decent” since Elbert obviously feels that all men with white skin can be so described. It all stems from the expression, “that’s mighty white of you,” an expression that has thankfully nearly disappeared in today’s world.
There is one thing that does perplex me about the logic of this story. Perhaps it stands out in my mind since the rest of the story is so well written, so tightly plotted, and so very logical. There is no murder weapon found by the dead body in the road. It turns out that the man was shot with his own gun. The murderer has taken the gun back to the owner’s home, and secreted it in its usual hiding place. The logic of doing this escapes me. Why not just leave the gun by the body? Or just dispose of it by tossing it in the river. Why return the murder weapon to its original hiding place? It seems to serve no purpose, and puts the killer at additional risk in that he must sneak into the house to replace it. This is never really explained, and makes no sense to me. It just seems to confuse the reader. Ah well, maybe I’m just getting picky.
This is really an excellent story. It’s an excellent murder mystery. And it’s an excellent adventure of The Shadow. For some inexplicable reason, it took Street & Smith nearly a year to publish it. Walter Gibson had completed it just before New Year’s Eve of the previous year. But for some reason this story didn’t get into the bi-monthly magazine until mid-November of the following year. It’s such a wonderful mystery, I can’t understand the delay in publishing it.
I hope you get a chance to read this one, even though it was unfortunately never reprinted in paperback. The Shadow stalks the mystery-enshrouded hillside in the dark of night, following various denizens of the town, who are mysteriously drawn to taking moonlight strolls. Only The Shadow can uncover the secret behind the murder and reveal the mastermind behind the sinister plot. This is a great old murder mystery from the early years of The Shadow’s exploits. I know you’ll enjoy reading it.
"Clue for Clue" was originally published in the October 15, 1942 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Diamonds set the stage for competing bands of daring criminals in this breath-taking exploit of The Shadow. In their battle of wits against the black-cloaked scourge of evil, they play for tremendous stakes -- life and death!
This could easily be one of the most forgettable Shadow stories I’ve ever read. A couple days after reading it, I was hard-pressed to remember any of the details. And this was after reading it for the second time! It has a plot that, when you distill it down to a few paragraphs, sounds on the surface like a pretty good story. But when I was actually reading it, I found myself having trouble following along. My attention really flagged. It seemed confusing, and I didn’t feel motivated to try to unscramble the characters and events. It just didn’t seem worth the effort.
Consider what was happening in the world at the time this story was published. World War II was raging across Europe, and on the American homefront, and in this pulp story The Shadow was fighting Nazis. They are after diamonds that had been smuggled out of Europe by Wadden van Zuyder, and only The Shadow stands between the heinous foreign regime and the rightful owners of millions in looted wartime treasure.
We are told that if the diamonds had been smuggled out of Holland before the invasion, they would legally belong to one Wadden van Zuyder. But if they had been smuggled out after Nazi Germany had invaded the country, then they would be German property and would have to be returned. To me, that makes no sense. We were at war with Germany! If find it hard to believe that America would have honored any claim Germany had on them. But this story would have it so. I don’t get it.
The story all starts at the old mansion owned by wealthy Talbot Branford. He is showing his guests the Wadden van Zuyder collection of antiques stored in the Dutch Room. These are things that van Zuyder shipped out of Holland on one of the last boats out before the invasion.
Suddenly they are attacked by a band of crooks under the leadership of Rupe Bonsal. The crooks plan on stealing the entire collection of antiques, until stopped by The Shadow. They escape after a gun fray with our hero, carrying off only a single item: a portable folding writing desk known as a portmanteau. In the pitched battle, Talbot Branford is mysteriously shot and killed.
Was he killed to keep him silent about the diamonds? Did he know the secret hiding place in the portmanteau, where van Zuyder kept the treasure? Or was there some other reason that required his death? And who shot the fatal bullet? One of the crooks? Or one of the guests?
Well, let’s run down the list of suspects. There’s Glenn Owen, the New York diamond merchant who owns the rights to sell van Zuyder’s diamonds. And there’s Fred Hargood, private detective hired by Owen. Rupe Bonsal committed the robbery itself. His some-times partner Mart Ingle now owns a nightclub, the Chez Caprice. And lovely young Lana Colquitt, exotic European songstress and Nazi agent, performs there nightly. We mustn’t forget a migratory servant named Larkin Sparr, whose cunning, pointed face gave away his evil interior. Then there’s Don Boyette, a sleek gentleman - confidence man or jewel thief? And finally, let’s not forget Alexis Ault, a Nazi agent who was the brain behind the raid staged by Rupe Bonsal.
OK, so somebody in that group must be the guilty party. Probably more than one. There’s just too many enemy agents running around! But in the end, The Shadow mops them all up, and reveals the stunning secret of the diamonds! It all makes for a pretty good wartime yarn.
Appearing on the side of American right and justice are Cliff Marsland, Hawkeye, Margo Lane, Inspector Joe Cardona, Commissioner Ralph Weston, Harry Vincent, Clyde Burke, Rutledge Mann, and Burbank. And, of course, The Shadow in his frequent disguise as Lamont Cranston.
A couple of interesting notes about this story. Only the “radio” version of The Shadow had the actual power of invisibility. The “pulp” Shadow would only blend into the shadows. But according to this pulp story, The Shadow had a reputed power of invisibility; crooks really did believe he could become invisible. Author Walter Gibson still doesn’t claim The Shadow has those powers; he just claims that cheap thugs believe it. He’s treading a thin line in this obvious reference to The Shadow’s radio powers, that seems to be an effort to reconcile the two.
There’s romance between Harry Vincent and Lana Colquitt, the Nazi agent who sings at the Chez Caprice. She falls for him, and decides to abandon her Nazi friends for truth, justice and the American way. And apparently, he feels similar emotions toward her. Her character seems to fade out as the story winds up for its final climax, leaving her fate left up in the air. Will the romance continue? Is marriage in their future? We are left to only conjecture.
Lamont Cranston gets to pull a couple of neat tricks, usually reserved for The Shadow. He carries a cigarette case that contains heavily doped cigarettes. The normal and doped cigarettes lie in a unique pattern that assures that Cranston will get a normal one, and his victim will get a “special” one. He uses this trick to escape from a gang who have kidnapped him.
And then there’s the “Devil’s Whisper,” that mysterious substance that he rubs on his thumb and middle finger. When he snaps his fingers, there’s an explosion and flash of light that stuns his captors. This was based upon a real-life chemical magic trick first explained magician and author Ellis Stanyon in 1909. Walter Gibson, being a skilled magician himself, heard of this strange preparation and fictionalized it for The Shadow pulp series. What was a bone-jarring explosion in real life, became a blinding flash and thunderous explosion that The Shadow used to disorient the crooks. Gibson was entitled to use literary license, you know...
Let’s run down a few other points of interest that cropped up in this story. In one scene, The Shadow uses his famed ability at reading lips. Seems he’s pretty darned good at it. He “...watched the motion of Fred’s lips and picked up their words as perfectly as if The Shadow had heard them.” In another scene, we are told that Margo routinely carries a .22 automatic in her handbag.
And speaking of Margo, she gets to do an excellent imitation of Lana Colquitt’s voice. Seems she is as skilled at vocal mimicry as her chief!
This story would probably fall in my personal list of the bottom 100 of all the Shadow stories. It seemed uninspired and tedious. Things happened which I really didn’t understand, and I didn’t have the interest to go back and try to figure it all out. I can’t quite explain it. It seems that a story from the war years with Lamont, Margo and Nazi agents should be an easy winner. But somehow, it’s just not.
Reviews like this are very subjective, so maybe it’s just me. Maybe you’d enjoy it a lot more than I did. If you feel like taking a chance, go ahead and read it. Prove me wrong. Or trust me and spend your time reading something else. I certainly vote for something else.
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.