John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #132
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"Fingers of Death" was originally published in the March 1, 1933, issue of The Shadow Magazine. What are the “fingers of death”? Who controls them? Are they seeking new victims? And how are they made to bring doom to the innocent? The Shadow is the only entity who can thwart the sinister being behind the fingers of death.
This is a pretty darn good story from the early years of The Shadow. In many ways, this story is typical of the early Shadow who stayed in the background and only only appeared when important events were happening. There’s no Lamont Cranston here; the only references of The Shadow are as his black-garbed master of the night. Most of the time, the story focuses upon the other characters, most notably the proxy hero who the readers come to identify with.
This is an old dark house type of mystery. You can just feel the atmosphere permeating the entire story. There’s action; there’s suspense; there’s thrills. Weird conspiracies tantalize the reader. Men are dying left and right. And of course, there’s a treasure to be found. It all makes for a rousing Shadow mystery that’s hard to put down.
Our story opens in the city of Holmsford, located a couple hundred miles from New York. In a dismal old house, old Josiah Bartram lies in his bed, fearing the approach of death. Surrounding him are his niece, young Grace Bartram, his faithful Hindu servant Mahinda, his family physician Doctor Felton Shores and the family attorney Hurley Adams.
Knowing that the end is near, old Josiah, successful building contractor regarded as one of the wealthiest men in Holmsford, has given special instructions to his lawyer and niece. There is to be no ceremony, and he is to be buried in his own mausoleum beside the old house. Young Grace will inherit all, if she will continue to live in the old house and retain the services of the faithful Mahinda.
Old Josiah suddenly sits upright and screams out, “At my throat! Fingers of Death!” Then with a convulsive shudder, he falls back upon his pillows, dead. Those surrounding the death bed are in shock. They can’t believe what they’ve seen. Those words hold mystic significance to at least one person present. What can they mean? Who will be next? And what’s the mysterious secret that lies behind the fingers of death?
The proxy hero of this story is Willard Saybrook, fiancée to young Grace Bartram, niece of the dearly departed Josiah Bartram. He endeavors to discover what is going on, and in doing so eventually is visited by The Shadow. He assists The Shadow, along with his new friend Harry Vincent, one of The Shadow’s most trusted agents.
There are very few familiar characters in this story, and most of those who do appear have small roles. Contact-man Burbank gets one brief scene, and speaks only two words. If you’ve wondered about where his hidden switchboard is located, this story tells us that “Burbank changed his location frequently. Always, however, he was within immediate reach.”
Rutledge Mann, who collects information for The Shadow, also appears in this story. He gets a couple good scenes, including a trip to that old office building of Twenty-third Street where the deserted “B. Jonas” office is located on the second floor. There, he delivers newspaper clippings that The Shadow has ordered.
In this story, Rutledge Mann gathers information and acts as contact man for The Shadow. Although the story states that “for a long while, now, he had been in the employ of this mysterious being,” it was actually less than a year, in published time. His predecessor, Claude Fellows, had been killed off previously in the story entitled “Gangdom’s Doom.” Mann had been introduced in the June 1932 story, “Double Z,” only nine months before this story was published.
The agent of The Shadow who gets the most action in this story is Harry Vincent. He and Willard Saybrook work together in most of this story, which means that Harry gets to see a lot of action. But Harry is spared the knocking about that normally goes with his job in these stories. This time it’s Willard Saybrook who gets shot at and buried alive. But even with that, there is plenty of work for Harry to do.
The Shadow only appears in his black cloak and slouch hat. There is no sign of his famous disguises. No Lamont Cranston; no Phineas Twambley; no Henry Arnaud. Only briefly does The Shadow get to don disguises. He appears at an old man outside a lawyer’s office. He quickly metamorphizes into a stern-faced mustached man who follows one of the lawyer’s clients to a restaurant. And that’s all that the master of disguise gets to do in this story.
There are some points of interest in this story. The Shadow scales the outside wall of one of the suspects’ homes, making his way to the third floor with no assistance from his infamous rubber discs. They had made three previous references, the most recent only two months earlier. Apparently, there was no need for them here. There were projecting stones and bits of masonry. And twisted vines of ivy aided in his progress.
In one scene, Harry receives a written message from The Shadow. Impressed upon the white paper is a grayish blotch forming a silhouette of a man’s profile. A profile that includes a projecting hat brim and an upturned cloak collar. The sign of The Shadow! Being made from The Shadow’s special ink, the design soon vanishes without a trace. In the 1994 Shadow movies, it was shown that this silhouette was created by a rubber stamp. Although that never was explained in the pulp magazines, it’s certainly a logical explanation of how it was accomplished.
Readers also get to see the method of passing hidden messages by emphasizing certain words in an otherwise innocuous message. Often that was a message heard over the radio. This time, however, it was a sales message delivered over the telephone. But the result was the same. Harry Vincent received the call. He heard certain words slightly stressed and understood the secret message.
The covers of The Shadow pulp magazines often showed The Shadow in black cloak with a crimson lining. It made for a striking visual cover, with the contrast of black and red, but it was not often actually mentioned in the stories themselves. This is one of those rare stories that describes the colorful lining.
The Shadow had a special way of signaling to his agents. He used a flashlight with red and green colored lenses. He prearranged with his aides what the colors would mean. It changed from story to story. In this one, red means “follow the red light,” and green means “leave.” This story is probably the first reference of those colored lights that had special meaning. They were routinely used in the stories from the 1940s. This early Shadow tale was the first one that I can recall that used them, however.
This is a wonderfully creepy Shadow mystery from the early years of the magazine’s run. It was the 25th Shadow pulp mystery published, and gets my hearty recommendation. I know you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.
"The Blackest Mail" was published in the August 1946 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Mysterious handwriting on a wall, a lady with a toy boat and a man with a kite—all clues to a dramatic, cunning plot which finds The Shadow in Hollywood fighting the macabre machinations of a ruthless killer...
This is one of those Shadow stories that you’ll want to avoid. It was written by Bruce Elliott! This is not The Shadow as created by Walter Gibson. It’s not even close. The characterization is off. The writing style is off. It’s bad... really bad. If all 325 Shadow pulp adventures were to be ranked from best to worst, this one would fall in the bottom twenty. I would not recommend it.
For those of you who don’t know how it came to pass that Walter Gibson left, here’s a brief synopsis. Gibson, who created The Shadow in 1931 and wrote the vast majority of the magazine stories, left the series in a contract dispute with publishers Street & Smith in early 1946. As a replacement, the editors selected Bruce Elliott. Elliott was an established writer of mystery and science fiction novels, short stories and radio scripts. (He wrote for the CBS radio series The Whistler.) He was also a good friend of Walter Gibson and a magician, as was Gibson. Although it seemed he would make a capable replacement for Walter Gibson, it was a disastrous decision. Under his charge, the Shadow stories took a nosedive. They were so unlike the stories written by Gibson, and alternate author Theodore Tinsley, that readership dropped precipitously. In early 1948, Street & Smith begged Gibson to return. He did so with the wonderful story “Jade Dragon.” But the damage Bruce Elliott had inflicted upon the series had been done. The magazine limped along for five more issues, then ceased publication with the summer 1949 issue.
So with that out of the way, let’s go on... Why does the handsomest man in America fly a kite at midnight, and why did the most glamorous woman in America put a toy submarine out in the waters of the Pacific Ocean? The answer to both questions: to make payment to a blackmailer, of course! Yes, it’s a story of blackmail in sunny Hollywood. Blackmail and murder!
Lamont Cranston stands on the sound stage of Impressive Films, Inc., as actor Richard Doster dies. In the film he was playing a man who was being blackmailed. He was playing his role to perfection when suddenly he stopped, straightened up and pitched forward on his face, dead. Dead by cyanide.
Handwriting appears mysteriously in full view of the cast. Large handwriting appears on the backdrop, saying “Doster thought HE could avoid paying me! This is the last warning...” Obviously, it’s a warning to other blackmail victims also in the movie cast.
This plot point is one of many weakness in the story. Apparently the author doesn’t understand the distinction between blackmail and extortion. The extortionist demands money or else injury/death. The blackmailer demands money or else exposure of some dark secret. The villain of this piece routinely threatens death, and often carries through. He never threatens exposure. You’d think an author of crime stories would know the difference. But then he couldn’t have used the title, which carries a double meaning at the story’s climax when the villain is dyed black. So we’ll call it “blackmail” even though it’s not. It’s clearly extortion.
It seems that everyone is being “blackmailed” in this film crew. But who is the blackmailer and murderer? Let’s take a look at the likely suspects. There’s Sturm, the German director with a secret past. Is he a blackmail victim, or is he the blackmailer? He’s wounded by a gunshot. Another attempt on the lives of the blackmail victims? Or self-inflicted to deflect suspicion?
Flip Hiller is the special effects man. He’s also in charge of props. And he’s forced to do a variety of odd jobs, as discipline. Sturm doesn’t like him. Is it because he’s the blackmailer?
Genia Gladder is a beautiful star whose pin-up pictures have adorned every G.I. barracks during the recent world-wide conflict. But she has a secret that would ruin her career. Is she paying to keep her secret? Or is she accumulating illicit wealth for the day when her career is over?
Don Barron is America’s handsomest star. Don and Genia are a twosome. Why is he being blackmailed? Does it have anything to do with Genia? Or is he using his good looks to avoid being suspected of something far worse?
Tony Hunter is the writer on the film. He has a hunted look about him. Is he being hunted by the vicious blackmailer, or is he worried about being hunted down by his victims?
And let’s not forget Mr. J. Gainsworthy, president of the studio. He would appear to have a lot to lose if his actors, directors and writers were to suffer at the hands of a hidden blackmailer. But perhaps he has a hidden motivation that The Shadow will uncover.
Investigating all these people is Lieutenant Sherly of the Los Angeles police department. He’s a sharp young man, but finds this case a real stumper. He gladly accepts any assistance offered by Lamont Cranston... and The Shadow.
Yes, The Shadow appears in this story. That’s not always assured in the Bruce Elliott stories. But this was Elliott’s first Shadow novel for Street & Smith, and apparently he was still sticking pretty closely to the stories of Walter Gibson that came before. In later tales, the reference of The Shadow would be minimized and in some cases eliminated all together!
Bruce Elliott’s version of The Shadow was different from Walter Gibson’s even from the beginning. Most glaring, at least to me, is that The Shadow no longer wears a full form-concealing cloak. He now wears a cape. How he can disappear into the shadows hidden beneath only a cape is incomprehensible.
To add insult to injury, Elliott switches back to describing it as a cloak several times in the story. A half-dozen times it’s described as a cape; an equal number of times as a cloak. Elliott describes The Shadow as wearing black gloves; at least he got that right, something Gibson often ignored.
Now let’s take The Shadow’s famous .45 automatics. In this story they are described as Colt .45s. Huh? That was never Gibson’s description. Never. Handgun enthusiasts can probably illuminate me on the difference in great detail. But to the uninitiated, there certainly seems to be a difference.
And remember the mask-like countenance of The Shadow, over which occasionally the hint of a smile would pass fleetingly? That’s not the way Elliott writes the character. In Elliott’s version, “a grin spread over his saturnine face.” Yikes! That is so out of character that I’m amazed the editors at Street & Smith let it get through. Apparently at this stage, they just didn’t care.
Moe Shrevnitz is the only agent of The Shadow to appear in this story, and Bruce Elliott characterizes him as a wise-cracking, slang-slinging Brooklynese. His constant “dese, dat and dose” dialogue drove me crazy. And he’s only referred to by the nickname Shrevvie, never allowed the dignity of his given or surname. I get the feeling that Elliott based his Shrevvie on the radio version of the character, which was definitely not pulp based.
In this story, apparently Shrevvie drove his cab out to Los Angeles because Burbank said he might be needed. He picked up some G.I.’s who needed to get to L.A. in a hurry and couldn’t get train or plane accommodations, using them as a cover for his trip. I guess in those post-war times transportation was clogged.
Shrevvie’s cab is demolished in this story. But he soon shows up with another. As Elliott’s horrible dialogue has it, “a cousin of mine has dis here cab. I borried it offa him.” Nothing further is said about the original taxi, which if you’ll remember, was actually owned by The Shadow. At least, such was the case in the original Walter Gibson stories.
And as final insult, Bruce Elliott throws in the dialogue: “The Shadow knows” as spoken by The Shadow himself, as if to convince us that this is the same character we have grown to love over the previous fifteen years. Not even close!
If approached as a mystery novel having nothing to do with The Shadow, this story isn’t bad at all. It definitely has its moments. It’s a bit short at only 38,000 words, but some of Elliott’s later Shadow stories were much, much shorter.
There is excitement, especially as a black helicopter (apparently autogiros are no more) picks up blackmail payments in mid-flight. And there’s an underwater chase and fight between the blackmailer and The Shadow that’s pretty cool.
If you’re looking for an even acceptable Shadow novel, you had best look elsewhere. But if you’re interested in a nice little mystery that has nothing to do with The Shadow as you know him, this might be for you. Or if you are one of those masochists who wants to see just how far The Shadow had fallen by 1946, this would be a glimpse. Although, to be honest, it did get even worse...