John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #135
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"The Ghost Murders" was originally published in the January 1, 1936, issue of The Shadow Magazine. The title conjures up images of a stately old mansion, lightning pitchforks the night sky, and inside unfortunate victims are found lying dead, a frozen look of utter horror on their faces. All victims of the ghost of the manor. Well... sorry, no such thing here. Talk about false advertising!
The title “The Ghost Murders” was selected by the editors at Street & Smith for some unfathomable reason. Probably to sell more magazines. When author Walter Gibson submitted this story to his publishers, he had entitled it “The Cigarette Cipher.” And that was much more appropriate. Because that’s what the story is really about: a coded message hidden in a cigarette case.
The magazine cover features artwork that is faithful to the story, I should point out. There’s no intent to mislead the reader with the cover. It shows the cigarette case, with The Shadow reflected in the shiny metal case. And in the background is a sheet of paper with the strange code that was found inside the case. So the title, printed on the cover, doesn’t really match the cover art or the story inside. Go figure.
Just where, you may ask, did the editors get the idea for the title, anyway? There must have been some connection between the story and the title, even if a vague one. Well... yes. But it is vague. You see, there are murders. So that part of the title does fit. Of course, every Shadow pulp mystery had one or more murders, so that’s essentially irrelevant.
What about the “ghost” part? Well, The Shadow is seen bending over a recently killed victim. And a witness mistakes him for the killer. His description: “I saw the killer; all black, like a ghost.” And it never goes any farther than that. There’s no follow-up. The ghost angle is ignored after that throw-away comment. So giving this story the title of “The Ghost Murders” is a real stretch. I guess in the 1930s pulp community, there was no such thing as truth in advertising. It was “anything to sell the pulps.”
The story is good. In fact, it’s very good. So don’t let the fact that the title is a total mismatch for the story dissuade you. Just ignore the title and enjoy another of Walter Gibson’s well-written Shadow mysteries. Gibson loved codes and code-breaking, and featured it in many of his Shadow novels over the years. His love for ciphers shines through in this pulp tale. It’s the major plot point around which everything revolves. The secret of great wealth lies hidden in a coded message, one which only The Shadow can break.
When our story opens, we are in Philadelphia at a séance in the apartment of Doctor Mazda. Doctor Mazda is a phony, a thick-set man who wears a black beard and a Hindu turban. He’s working with Madame Theresa, who claims to be a medium. It’s the usual dark room, floating trumpets and messages from the dead.
I have to admit that this opening chapter with the phony séance was really cool and along with the “ghost murders” title really sucked me in. But after that, the story turned to a straight gangster story. It’s almost as if the first chapter was tacked on after the rest of it was finished. Perhaps something requested by the editors to make the story fit the title better? I’m just speculating here, but it certainly does have that feel.
Anyway, once we get past the séance, the story settles down into an interesting tale of gangsters trying to find the treasure of a fellow kingpin who is currently in prison. Peter Tarmagan is the mob boss who has been sent up the river. It seems that he not only freely spent his wealth, he also had about five million dollars hidden away somewhere. The secret location of his wealth is hidden in his cigarette case. And the cigarette case was given to a trusted associate before he was sent to the big house.
The first part of our story involves the search for the missing cigarette case. Oscar Lavery, the man who knows the identity of the current owner of the case is killed, after the information is gained. The Shadow is seen at the scene of the crime, and his “ghostly” movements lend shaky justification to the story title. Thomas Farren, the man who carries the much-desired cigarette case, is murdered and the cigarette case is stolen. The Shadow arrives only moments after the crime, and again his “ghostly” reference is witnessed. These two instances seem to be the only justification for the title. Pretty weak, if you ask me.
The cigarette case is now in the possession of two notorious killers, Dirk Bardo and Bert Hagrew. They find the secret compartment in the case that holds the coded message that will lead to Pete Tarmagan’s millions. The problem is that they can’t read the code. It’s not that these two are dim bulbs, although admittedly they are, but the code is very unique and extremely complicated. So they go out and kidnap a code expert, one Professor Curtis Fribbs. They intend to force him to break the code.
Clyde Burke, reporter and agent for The Shadow, is captured by Bardo and Hagrew and kept prisoner along with Professor Fribbs. The Shadow has to break the code before Professor Fribbs does. Otherwise, the crooks will get the treasure and the Professor and Clyde Burke will die. But it’s a tough code to crack. It’s composed of a series of strange rectangles with diagonal lines inside. And it will take all the mental abilities of The Shadow to solve the mystery before more men die.
There’s a lot going on in this story. At first, it seems to jump around a bit, from location to location. Each location involves different characters who are seemingly unconnected to the others. But gradually, it all pulls together and the pieces begin to fit. And by the time you’re done reading this, it all makes sense and reaches an exciting climax.
Not only does The Shadow get to use his favorite disguise as millionaire Lamont Cranston, but he also gets to use another of his disguises, businessman Henry Arnaud. We are told that it’s Henry Arnaud who has contacts at radio station WNX, which is how The Shadow is able to get his secret messages broadcast to his agents. These are the messages, you may remember, which appear to be innocent commercial announcements. But the radio announcer stresses certain words slightly, which give listening agents a secret message from their master.
And speaking of The Shadow’s disguises, we get to see him grab mop and pail, and dress up in overalls to take the part of the police station janitor Fritz again. Poor Fritz. He’s made fun of, and is openly described as “mentally backward” and a “sluggish moron.” Pretty insensitive in today’s more politically correct world, but things were different back in the 1930s. Keep in mind, this wasn’t just a false character created by The Shadow. There was a real Fritz, and The Shadow was just adopting his guise in order to infiltrate police headquarters. Poor Fritz gets no respect.
And let’s not forget The Shadow’s amazing ability to imitate the voice of others. While the art of imitation was more widely used by Doc Savage in his own pulp adventures, The Shadow also demonstrated this ability upon occasion. In this story, he quite successfully imitates the voice of Doctor Mazda.
You’ll recognize a lot of familiar characters in this story. Police Commissioner Weston is present, as is Detective Joe Cardona. Vic Marquette, formerly with the secret service, now represents the Department of Justice and helps out with the search for Tarmagan’s millions. And most of The Shadow’s agents get parts in the story as well. Harry Vincent, Clyde Burke, Burbank, Cliff Marsland, Hawkeye, Rutledge Mann and Moe Shrevnitz all show up here.
There are lots of those wonderful touches that are always found in the mid-1930s novels. The Shadow’s autogiro shows up, as he takes a quick trip to the small town of Mountainside in search of the cigarette case. The tiny phial of purplish liquid appears when The Shadow administers it to a dying man to give him strength for a final gasping statement. And we take a trip to the seemingly abandoned “B. Jonas” office where Rutledge Mann drops off messages for The Shadow.
That strange clock that sits in The Shadow’s sanctum is briefly mentioned. No details are given this time; it’s just described as “a curious clock on The Shadow’s table.” But long-time readers recognized it as the most strange clock that was more fully described in 1933’s “The Red Blot.” And it’s good to see that the clock hasn’t been forgotten three years later. A minor touch but one that’s appreciated.
One of my long-term complaints about many of The Shadow pulps involves the seemingly casual disregard for the proper disposal of expended firearms. In the heat of battle, The Shadow often empties his twin .45 caliber automatics and then tosses them aside and pulls another pair from beneath his cloak to continue the gun fray. Later, after the battle, he never goes back to pick up the empty guns. This happens consistently time after time.
I complain about this, not only because it’s economically inefficient—this could rapidly get quite expensive—but it’s socially irresponsible to leave firearms lying around for just anyone to find, especially children. Well, happily in this story, The Shadow doesn’t discard his expended weapons. To quote: “One brace of guns exhausted, The Shadow dropped them beneath his cloak and pulled another pair.” Thank you, Shadow. It’s about time!
This is a prime example of mid-30s Shadow storytelling by the master, Walter Gibson. Now, if you start reading this story because of the title alone, you are bound for major disappointment. It’s a great Shadow pulp novel from 1936, but it really has nothing to do with ghost murders. Don’t let the title mislead into expecting something that you won’t get.
If, however, you read it for the joy of experiencing one of The Shadow mysteries from its prime era, then you are in for a treat. It’s got secret codes, gangsters and all the other trappings you come to expect from one of the top pulp series of all time.