One of the great figures from the pulp magazines era, The Shadow was also something of a multimedia phenomenon in the 1930s. This was the first novel in which the vigilante appeared and was penned by the ultra prolific Walter B. Gibson, mystery author and magician extraordinaire. As ‘Maxwell Grant’ he wrote a total of 282 Shadow novels, each of which originally appeared in The Shadow Magazine published by Street & Smith, who first created the character as the announcer for their radio show, Detective Story Hour.
I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
“Far from his room came a low, mocking peal of laughter; a weird uncanny laugh that was chilling to his heart”
The development of The Shadow is a fascinating if fairly convoluted one … regardless, here’s my attempt at a very quick summary. Street & Smith publishers, wishing to promote their range of pulp magazines, launched a radio show, Detective Story Hour, on 31 July 1930 and the spooky narrator, known as ‘the shadow,’ was an instant hit. The narrator was used on other shows but quickly Street & Smith decided to launch a magazine dedicated to the Shadow – originally as a quarterly then as it grew more popular a monthly and eventually fortnightly. It was Gibson who created this literary version of the character, which would also find success, albeit in modified form, at the cinema and again on radio (most famously voiced by Orson Welles, which are available here). In the books the Shadow is eventually revealed to be World War I flying ace Kent Allard who uses several identities, most notably that of the millionaire playboy Lamont Cranston, sometimes uses the latter’s identity when convenient as the two men look alike – on radio however Cranston was the shadow’s single real-life alter-ego (i.e. the Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne to his caped, crime-busting persona).
“The stranger’s face was entirely obscured by a broad-brimmed felt hat bent downwards over his features; and the long, black coat looked almost like part of the thickening fog”
Each edition of the pulp magazine would have a novel-length Shadow adventures as well as other short stories. The first edition was launched in late March 1931 with Gibson’s The Living Shadow appearing under the ‘Maxwell Grant’ house name. The story begins with Harry Vincent about to throw himself off a Manhattan bridge, but he is saved by the Shadow, who demands complete obedience for giving him a new life. Vincent agrees and is tasked with keeping an eye on a courier for a Chinese tong (or so he thinks). Vincent botches it and is nearly killed, leading to an elaborate execution method from which he is saved only in the last second. He is then tasked with looking into a murder that took place during a jewel robbery – are they connected?.
“A shadow fell on the floor beside his desk. It was a peculiar shadow, long and narrow. It was almost like the shadow of a human being”
Vincent is wonderfully gung-ho but as he gets trapped time and again and so has to be rescued by the Shadow (often in a variety of guises, including a couple of Chinamen, Fritz the janitor and a gangster known as ‘English Johnnie’), you do wonder about the superhero’s choice in minions. Why does he need Vincent? He seems to be able to do just about anything … make no mistake, in this book the eponymous character does have supernatural powers, literally blending in to the shadows to hide from evildoers. This would be changed to his ability to ‘could men’s minds’ and in fact there are a lot of things that we would come to associate with the character that are not present in the first adventure. There is no Lamont Cranston and certainly no Margo Lane or use of the celebrated line “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows” as they both initially belonged to the radio version that only began several years later (Gibson worked on that version too). Same goes for the supervillain Shiwan Khan, who wouldn’t appear until the end of the 1930s.
“Maybe they were putting one over on you, Joe. The chinks are a foxy lot”
What we get is a slightly juvenile story of murders among jewel smugglers, in which people speak in a kind of sub-Runyon patois that is fairly unconvincing and in which they always give elaborate and unnecessary explanations for all their actions. To a degree much of the dialogue has that kind of overly descriptive flavour we associate with radio, which of course is where The Shadow came from, Indeed, in one delirious passage in the book, we learn that in this universe the radio broadcasts featuring the Shadow is a reality and we get several paragraphs dedicated to attempts by the criminal class to trap the secret broadcaster at the radio station! Action, especially a car shade round a long winding road, is well-described and there are some surprises too – as well as some regrettable racial stereotypes among the African-American and Chinese characters, which certainly do date the book badly (“Lawdy, sah. Ah didn’t even stop at dat time”). But there is no denying that, in the midst of the Depression, this was exciting stuff and certainly entertained a lot of people in its day.
For more info about The Shadow, and there is a lot to choose from out there, visit: ThePulp.net
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘spooky title’ category: