THE LIVING SHADOW (1931) by Maxwell Grant

Grant_Living-Shadow_NELOne 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”

Shadow1livingshadowEach 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”

Grant_The-Living-Shadow_hbWhat 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:

vintage-golden-spooky

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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38 Responses to THE LIVING SHADOW (1931) by Maxwell Grant

  1. Sergio – Interesting isn’t it how pulp figures such as The Shadow become iconic. Thanks for your thoughtful treatment of both the book and the magazine. Can’t say I disagree with you about the datedness, but as you say, very popular in its time.

  2. Jeff Flugel says:

    Very succinct and fair assessment of THE SHADOW series, Sergio! I don’t remember having read this particular novel but I’ve read several back in the day. The book Shadow is quite a bit grittier than the radio counterpart (of which I’m a far bigger fan), with a lot more emphasis on the criminal element. You’re definitely right about the frequently purple prose and racism, though several of the novels are quite fun little thrillers. I much prefer other pulp hero stuff like Grant Stockbridge’s THE SPIDER and, especially, the wonderful DOC SAVAGE books written by Lester Dent (mostly).

    Nice to see you talk about these, a bit different from your usual fare.

  3. Colin says:

    This is a type of pulp writing I’ve read very little of – Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu is probably as close as I’ve come. I really ought to look into it a bit more.

    • For me part of the attraction is certainly just the sheer amount of it! I get the impression that the later books in the series offer much more in terms of plotting especially and am very curious to follow this up – I did enjoy the Alec Baldwin movie version, though it is a bit jokey, which in fact starts with the opening scene on the bridge from this book

  4. richmcd says:

    Like Colin, I’ve never delved too deep into this kind of pulp writing. I’d find it too hard to get over the racist stuff, but it’s impossible not to admire the sheer effort involved. Wasn’t he writing well over a million words a year for a while?

    • I don’t want to over-emphasise the use of stereotypes here as they were common and this, while being no exception, is not any worse than most of the books of the era (the lack of any significant female characters whatsoever is actually weirder to me). It is mostly a typical gangster melodrama with a vigilante superhero tinge (!) but told with energy and verve – hi soutput was apparently like that for over a decade – extraordinary!

  5. Skywatcher says:

    They do get better over time. I was pleasantly surprised by some of the reprints that I read a few years ago (there is a lovely story called CRIME, INSURED which has a very clever premise and is well worked out). The whole bit with The Shadow’s henchmen and women was also made more logical as time went on, with all of them having some sort of skill that he found useful. I’ve always been somewhat in awe of Gibson’s output. I recall reading that he started one story on a Friday night, and typed the last word on Monday morning. He usually took a few more days, but the fact that he remained readable and enjoyable is really jaw dropping.

    • Thanks Skywatcher – I do want to read some fo the later ones as I have read good things of many of them (and I love anything that makes good use of magician’s lore) and I think was pretty much finding his way here. The sheer quantity of his output is just astonishing.

  6. Sergio, I have a vague recollection of The Shadow though I honestly can’t say where or in what medium. Were there any Shadow comics? That’s a shot in the dark, I know. It’s always good to read about new Golden Age characters and series I know little about. How would you compare him to The Saint, about whom I have read only a couple of books?

    • There definitely was a Shadow comic in the early 1940s along with the books and radio show versions andf these have been collected more recently. If you want to get a look at just how many books there were, just look at this list!

    • Santosh Iyer says:

      There certainly were Shadow comics and I read several of them when I was a kid !
      Street and Smith published 101 issues (1940-1949), Archie Comics published 8 issues (1964-1965) and DC Comics published 12 issues (1973-1975). There may be others.
      Mad issue no. 4 (April-May 1953) carried a spoof on The Shadow, where the female character Margo Lane is named as Margo Pain !

    • Noah Stewart says:

      You might be more familiar with The Shadow from his radio incarnations; The Shadow became famous in the medium of what’s called Old Time Radio or OTR. You can find a collection of the programmes freely available at archive.org (https://archive.org/details/TheShadow_201408). The feeling of The Shadow radio and print incarnations seems to me to be the same; not so much with the few filmed versions.
      You will find The Saint of books to be quite different from The Saint of radio, and the one of TV, and the one of OTR (and comics too for all I know LOL).

      • Thanks Noah. The Orson Welles version of the The Shadow (which I linked to) may be the best known but is not, generally, thought to be the best iteration of the character on radio – but it’s great that there is quite so much to choose from. The Saint was certainly a less nakedly pulpy creation 🙂

        • Noah Stewart says:

          And of course I overlooked that link, my apologies for duplicating your effort. I agree with your comments on Orson Welles; really, he was phoning that one in, in my opinion, and the other voices were better. Yes, in general, I find the Saint more believable … well, both of them are a bit over the top in concept, but the Shadow was on the brink of a grisly death every 20 minutes or so LOL.

  7. Santosh Iyer says:

    The female character Margo Lane was first introduced in the radio version in 1937 to replace Harry Vincent as it was felt that 2 male voices would not provide sufficient vocal contrast. She was later introduced in the pulp magazine which received a lot of hate mails from the older fans who resented her intrusion.
    In the Mad spoof, the Shadow is so fed up with her that he kills her in the end !

  8. Richard says:

    It’s important to remember that the language used was everyday language, including terms for all ethnic groups, commonly used by those groups for each other. As for the rest of dated-ness, it’s the flavor of the time and if done right is an enjoyable aspect of old fiction. I have a number of reproduction issues of Shadow, Spider and Doc Savage issues, and they’re fun to read, I just glide over the things that bother many people these days. Put yourself in the times, people, that’s all you have to do. The term “handicapped” is used freely today, but what will equal that term in 50 years? Will people be horror struck by the word then? No way to know, just as there was no way to know about language then.

    I’m old enough to have heard some Shadow radio shoes, though I admit to liking The Whistler and Inner Sanctum better.

    • Hi Richard – I agree that using retrospective standards is mainly of contextual value – on the other hand, there are tons and tons of books from that era that manage to not to be pejorative in this way too … I’ve only occasionally sampled The Whistler but must find the time to listen to more of them.

  9. I only know the radio shows. I used to listen to cassettes of radio programs nightly before I went to sleep. Now I do the same with books. Perhaps I should try one of these.

  10. Bev Hankins says:

    I am familiar with The Shadow radio shows–but only by association, I can’t say I’ve ever actually listened to one. In fact, I think I only recognize it from cultural references in other media and references to “Only the Shadow knows.” I love that you’ve reviewed one of the books.

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