"The Banshee Murders" was originally published in the January 1946 issue of The Shadow Magazine. A seance, a vanishing blonde and a nymph-like creature involve The Shadow with a desperate band of adventurers, two kidnappings and hidden treasure.
If you're going to read this Shadow story, it's best to read it all in one sitting. And it won't be all that hard to do, since this is a fairly short adventure that comes in at under 34,000 words. If you stretch it out over several sessions, you'll probably start to lose track of what's going on, making the story a bit confusing. If you read it all at once, it is still a bit confusing, but hopefully you'll be able to keep track of most of the threads of the involved plot.
The year 1946 was not a good one for The Shadow Magazine. About halfway though the year, the magazine started publishing Shadow stories written by Bruce Elliott. Those stories were decidedly the low point of the eighteen-year run of the magazine. For the first seven months, the stories were written by the creator of the character, Walter Gibson. But even that wasn't enough to give them much energy. Many of the stories were lackluster, to be kind. This particular story, "The Banshee Murders" and perhaps "Malmordo" were the top stories of the year. Unfortunately, that's faint praise.
This story has a lot going for it, but it just never seems to come together in a very coherent fashion. The story opens with a seance, and that would seem to be a auspicious sign. Then there's the mysterious reference of a banshee in Central Park, and that's pretty cool, too. But wait! There's more; lots more. This is also a tale of sunken pirate treasure. A strange thuggee cult of leopard-skin wearers. Oh yeah, and let's not forget a gigantic vampire bat. Now with all those things stuffed into the story, you'd think it would have turned out a lot more exciting that it is.
This story has the feeling of a longer story that was severely cut, which may indeed be the case. Walter Gibson was used to writing longer Shadow stories. For years, his featured stories in the magazines were about 45,000 words in length. But the magazine had been reduced in size to the smaller "digest" dimensions three years earlier. And the typical word count of the main story was now between 30,000 and 35,000 words.
It wouldn't surprise me if Gibson wrote the stories with more words, and the editors at Street & Smith did some cutting so the story could fit in the new smaller size. I swear there were a couple missing scenes which were only made reference to at the story's end to help tie up the loose ends. And mysterious happenings which should have been explained away at the end remain unexplained. It's things like these which make reading this story a bit confusing, and that's why I recommend reading the entire story straight through. It tends to help keep things clearer that way.
The story opens in a pitch-black seance room where Madame Mathilda is holding audience for her paying customers. She claims to see a banshee. But not the typical hideous old hag with an unearthly wail. No, this one is very spritely and beautiful. And apparently the banshee likes lilacs, for she breaks a sprig from a lilac tree.
When Madame Mathilda comes out of her trance, there on the table before her is a sprig of lilac and a sharp dagger. Two spirit manifestations proving her vision. And in the audience, watching it all, are Lamont Cranston, Margo Lane, Police Commissioner Weston and Inspector Joe Cardona. Cardona takes possession of the two items that appeared in the seance room. Evidence, you know.
They are interrupted by a call to Central Park where Officer Riley, one of Manhattan's most trusted officers, has witnessed the reference of a strange, beautiful young woman on top of a large rock above a pool of water in the park. At the same time the seance took place in Madame Mathilda's parlor, he was watching the ghostly figure reach up and pull a portion of a lilac branch from the bush. She broke a small twig from it, then disappeared into the night. When Cardona and Weston show up in the park, Cardona examines the lilac branch along with the twig that appeared in the seance room. The jagged mark where the twig had been broken matches the twig from Madame Mathilda's exactly. That twig somehow dematerialized from the park and rematerialized only moments later in the seance room!
Yes, the story is off to a great start. Unfortunately, the plot starts jumping around crazily, and it becomes hard to keep track of what's going on. We meet an ex-Army man named Philip Harley. We don't really know why he's in the story, but he meets an ex-Wave named Arlene Forster. She's carrying a tiny sprig of lilac so the reader assumes she must figure into the story somehow. The two seem to think that they were supposed to meet, but we aren't told why. Then she disappears and later shows up riding in a horse-drawn cab in Central Park. It's all a little vague, but the reader slogs on, trying to make sense of it all.
We also meet Captain Dom Yuble, who works with an inventor named Niles Ronjan. Ronjan has invented a new method of reaching sunken treasure. He's trying to interest new investors, including Lamont Cranston, so he can raise the treasure somewhere off Skipper's Rock. So what's with the blinking lights that can be seen from his penthouse window? Lights coming from the other side of Central Park? The Shadow determines it's a code. But who is sending it? Who is the intended recipient? What do the messages say?
The story continues in a somewhat rambling fashion. We meet characters like the sleek-haired brunette Thara Lamoyne. She seemingly has designs on Phil Harley, but takes to appearing and disappearing at the most inopportune times. Then there's Winslow Ames who we don't really know, but who disappears for some reason. And another person we barely know named Claude Older is also apparently kidnapped.
The story spends much of its time in Central Park. Characters ride into Central Park, fight in Central Park and disappear in Central Park. We visit the Central Park Zoo. We encounter a rundown old merry-go-round in Central Park. The banshee appears several times in Central Park.
As in many of the later Shadow stories, The Shadow's usual roster of agents make a brief reference. In this one, we see hackie Moe Shrevnitz (but he's only called Shrevvy here), Cliff Marsland, Hawkeye, Harry Vincent, Burbank and Clyde Burke. All have very minor roles. The largest role goes to Margo Lane. Burbank does get a chance to leave his small room with the switchboard and get some night air. He drives a hansom cab in Central Park, his face hidden beneath the driver's plug hat. Oh, and Stanley also appears, but he isn't referred to by name; he's just "the chauffeur." Of course, we also see The Shadow in his Lamont Cranston disguise, Commissioner Weston and Inspector Cardona.
In this story, we are told that The Shadow prefers to become unseen by blending into the darkness with his garb of black. But, it's admitted here, The Shadow can actually become invisible, just as his radio counterpart could. Yes, that's right... actually invisible. "Of course there were times and occasions when The Shadow could cloud men's minds, as was done in Tibet where he had learned hypnotic methods from the Lamas, but in usual practice, The Shadow's way was to simply blend with blackness." We never actually see The Shadow disappear from view by clouding men's minds. Not in this story; not in any other, either. But it's stated here that he can do it, and has done it on occasion. To me, it seems as if author Walter Gibson was giving in to the pressure of the radio show to allow his hero the actual power of invisibility.
A couple interesting things in this Shadow mystery deserve note. There's mention of a special code machine that The Shadow has developed for the use of his agents. It's a mechanical decoder with an illuminated dial with buttons which when pushed aligned certain letters and solves the code. In this story, it's used by Burbank to break a code being sent by mysterious forces. It's the first I've seen mention of a decoder device, and is worth mention here.
Another unusual device is a telephone booth in the Chateau Parkview hotel. It has a special revolving wall that ejects the occupant of the booth out into a corridor in an adjoining building. It's unique in that this telephone booth plays a small role in the following month's story, "Crime Out of Mind," as well. The telephone booth is an invention of the hidden gang in this story. But The Shadow discovers its workings, and uses the telephone booth for his own purposes in the next month's story. A most unusual happening.
This story could have been much better if Walter Gibson had been given another ten thousand words to flesh out the story. It would have allowed him to explain things in more detail, rather than to just give them passing mention. As it is, we are never given an explanation for the strange materialization of the lilac twig. How did the twig get from Central Park to Madame Mathilda's seance room? We are assured it is the same twig, because the break matches perfectly. We know the two events happened simultaneously, so there was no time to deliver it from one location to the other. And we know that Inspector Cardona kept it securely in his custody ever since it appeared, so there was no chance for a switch. How was it done? We are never told. And the reader justifiably feels cheated. Gibson sets up a fantastic opening mystery, and then fails to follow through by giving readers an explanation.
Gibson also fails to include any murders in this story. The title "Banshee Murders" notwithstanding, there are no murders in this story. The banshee murders no one. No one murders anyone. In fact, the only death in this story occurs when the giant vampire bat attacks the minor character of Captain Dom Yuble. But it's not a murder. Gibson should have stuck with the original title, "Crime over Central Park." It wasn't as lurid, but it was more honest. I'm assuming it was the editors at Street & Smith that dictated the change, but that's no excuse.
This is not a great Shadow story. It's not even a good one. It's a short and confusing one. Even the title of this Shadow mystery is a letdown. It offers a lot of promise, but doesn't deliver. Of course, as disappointing as it is, there would be worse to come in future months. If you decide to read this Shadow adventure, read it in a single sitting, as recommended earlier, and don't go in with very high expectations. Then you won't be too disappointed. Banshee murders, indeed... harumph!.