Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Crime Master

"The Crime Master," published in the August 1, 1934 issue of The Shadow Magazine, not only features one of George Rozen's coolest covers (which is really saying something), but also succeeds in being one of Walter Gibson's finest Shadow stories.

The premise is one Gibson revisited on a number of occasions--a brilliant master criminal (identity unknown) is the brains behind a massive crime wave. This, though, is one of the finest examples, showing us that endless and entertaining varieties on a particular theme are available to a skilled storyteller.

The Crime Master uses a sort of chess board--a map of the city divided into grids--to plot out his crimes. Green pieces on the board represent gangs made up of gunmen; blue pieces are safe-crackers and other experts of that ilk; red are for "hidden watchers and snipers." White pieces represent the cops and he eventually adds a black piece for the Shadow.

He places these pieces on the board to plot out robberies that will net large amounts of cash or valuable loot, setting things up so that a cordon of crooks can hold off the cops and allow the gangs with the loot to make getaways. It's a violent but effective way of carrying out crime.

He's also got a pretty clever way of passing his plans on to the gang leaders without leaving a clear paper trail back to him, so not even his minions know who he is. But the Shadow has become interested, intercepting messages and setting up traps for the gangs.

The novel has a nifty back-and-forth feel to it. The Shadow manages to foil a robbery, mostly working alone but also warning the cops so that they are present to help clean up leftover crooks. But the Crime Master sets a trap for the Shadow during the next job. His men get away with the loot and (in one of Gibson's best action sequences) the Shadow is badly wounded and only gets away by the skin of his teeth.

While the Shadow is recuperating, agent Cliff Marsland manages to get information about the Crime Master's next job, then use a known stool pigeon to pass this on to the police. The cops are able to put a stop to that particular robbery.

But the Crime Master manages a trick of his own, allowing him to discover Marsland is an agent of the Shadow and feed false information to the mysterious crime fighter. The Shadow, still weakened from his wounds, soon finds himself in an apparently inescapable trap, while the Crime Master plots a robbery that will net him millions of dollars.

Walter Gibson's Shadow novels are typically fast-moving and exciting stories in which the plots follow a logical path from start to finish. Here, I think, is one of his best efforts, inching ahead of many of the others in pure quality.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

That Darn Stitches is... Well, Kind of Annoying

Jack-in-the Box Comics, one of two one-shots published by the Charles Publishing Company in 1946, features (among other stories) the tale of a sentient rag doll named Stitches, who lives with Santa at the North Pole.

As Christmas Eve rolls around and Santa is loading his sleigh with toys, Stitches asks to come along. Santa tells him no, but Stitches isn't a doll who takes no for an answer. Soon, he's loaded up a bag of reserve toys and is following Santa in a hastily-constructed sleigh of his own design.

While Santa properly delivers toys to individual homes, Stitches simply drops them over towns as he flies over. On his way home, he gets lost in a fog, crashes into an iceberg, nearly gets eaten by a bear, gets lost at sea on a small slab of ice and is frozen solid by the time he's found and brought home. Santa thaws him out and he's presumably learned his lesson about being obedient.

I don't know why I like this story. The art, tentatively credited to Al Fago, does give it an aura of cuteness. And Stitches' sled is undeniably cool. The story itself and the character of Stitches, though, are largely forgettable. So I suppose it is the art work. In comic books, there are times when the art can lift up an otherwise mundane tale. This is one of those times.

You can read the story online HERE.

I did not consciously plan to do so, but I just realized I'm doing a Comics in the Public Domain theme this month. Last week was a Billy the Kid story; this week is Stitches the Doll; and next week will be an early Spy Smasher tale that is also now copyright free.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Saint: "Tuba" 1/21/51

Why would the manager of a roadhouse hire the world's worst tuba player to play in the house band? Simon looks into this and soon finds himself dodging bullets.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Does Anyone Have a Time Machine I Can Borrow?

Yesterday, I learned of the existence of a short-lived mystery series that aired on the short-lived Dumont network in 1951. The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong starred Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong as the owner of an art gallery who also solves crimes or catches spies.  Ten episodes aired between August and November of 1951, then it was cancelled.

The lead role was a part specifically created for Wong, whose career as an actress stretches back to the silent days. She was a wonderfully talented actress, regulated to supporting roles through most of her career because of the racial bigotry inherent in our culture at the time.  So getting to be one of the first (very possibly the first) Asian actor to land a lead role on TV is a pretty big deal.

I admit, though, that my personal geekiness centers my attention on the show itself. It's a great premise for an amateur detective show and, though the time period probably led to some stereotyping of Asian characters and culture, there's no reason it couldn't be a high-quality mystery. And there's no question that Wong would have been wonderful in the role.

But we'll never know. Why will we never know? Because not a single episode nor a single script survive.

Like many early TV shows, it was recording via kinoscope (point a film camera at the TV and record the show as it is broadcast), but in a vile crime against cultural history, many recordings of Dumont shows were eventually disposed of by dumping them into New York Bay. My understanding is that there was some sort of legal dispute going on over the recordings at the time, but apparently no one involved ever thought that these old shows might some day have monetary value. To be fair, no one would have seen the possibilities of streaming and home video at that time, but all the same--there are occasionally other issues at stake than mere money.

So we can't ever watch an episode of The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. We can't even read a script or get a plot summary.  No one has ever written down their memories of watching it. It's as if it never existed.

Gee whiz, until yesterday I didn't even know this show did once exist. Now the universe seems a cruel and empty place because I have to live without it.

So if I ever get access to a time machine, I'm going to give saving the recordings of The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong a high priority--right after watching a 19th Century baseball game and right before saving Abraham Lincoln. It's that important.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A Gunfighter in a Sword Duel

The good guy version of Billy the Kid has quite a long run in both B-movies and comic books, so he racked up quite a few adventures for someone who got killed when he was only 22 years old. But the sliding time scale of fiction does have its advantages. 42 B-movies and 153 issues of his series from Charlton adds up to 195 adventures. Let's assume that in the universe in which Billy the Kid was a hero had him start his career at 16. That's 32 1/2 adventures per year, or one about every 11 days. Gee whiz, when did he have time to go to the bathroom?

With all that adventuring, I suppose its not surprising he managed to fit in at least one sword fight. This happened in Charlton's Billy the Kid #64 (December 1967). Billy is defending the honor of a beautiful French woman, only for the woman to decide he's as much of an oaf as the guy who was making unwanted advances. She whacks him on the head with a whiskey bottle.

When the woman learns that Billy is actually the guy she wanted to hire for a particular job, she nurses him back to consciousness and implies that it was someone else who wielded the bottle.

This, plus the fact that her assistant Fritz might as well be wearing a sign around his neck that reads "I'm a jerk and a bully" let us know pretty much right away that the woman is a classic Femme Fatale. But poor Billy seems to tumble for her pretty quickly.

That's a act, though. Billy is at least suspicious of her right from the beginning. She turns out to be the mastermind behind a plot to drive ranchers out of the valley and acquire the land cheaply. Billy and one of the ranchers stage a fight to make it look like Billy is completely under her sway, but Billy has to give himself away to keep Fritz from back-shooting the rancher.

This leads to Fritz challenging Billy to a duel. You wouldn't think the average Western gunfighter would also be a skilled fencer--and you'd be right. Billy gets the upper hand by pretty much turning the ensuing sword duel into a brawl. When Fritz's thugs turn out to have brought guns to a sword fight, the rancher and the marshal step in to help Billy bring them all down.

Fritz tries his hand once more at challenging Billy to a duel, this time with pistols. Billy counters by suggesting they just stand a few feet away from each other and pull the triggers simultaneously. Fritz balks at this, the woman admits to the land-grabbing scheme and the two are run out of town. Poor Billy doesn't get the girl--but then, who would have wanted her anyway?

It's a fun story, with Jose Delbo doing the art and the script tentatively credited to Joe Gill. A combination of basic good storytelling and the inherent pleasure of watching a bully get his comeuppance makes it a satisfying tale.  It's available to read online HERE

Next week, we'll follow along with an annoying little toy who tries to give Santa Claus some unwanted help.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Friday, October 6, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Philo Vance: "Chop Suey Murder Case" 12/20/49

Vance is having a bad day when two successive plans to catch a thief in possession of a stolen diamond goes awry. But he makes up for it when the episode concludes with a very surprising twist ending.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Don't Bother Me! I'm Playing Chess!

There are two different things that can--on occasion--be in danger of taking over my life.  One is Sherlock Holmes. If I get on a Holmes kick, I can't get enough of re-reading the original Canon, looking up facts in my copy of the Annotated Sherlock Holmes and perhaps watch a bunch of the more faithful film and TV adaptations.

The other thing is chess. When I'm in practice, I'm a slightly better than average player. But if something triggers my chess obsession, I won't want to do anything except play chess, work on chess problems, read about chess and delude myself into thinking I'm a much better player than I am.

Recently, I read a fascinating history of the game titled The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, by David Shenk. That sent me into serious chess mode. I've got four online games going with different players and I'm pulling up the daily chess problems on a chess website faithfully every day. I'm also working through the site's Chess Tactics exercises and have discovered several YouTube channels in which chess masters analyze games.

Also, I re-read Fritz Leiber's wonderful short story "Midnight by the Morphy Watch." Written in 1974, not long after Bobby Fischer  took the world championship title away from Boris Spassky and was upholding the long tradition among world champions of acting completely nuts. Leiber's short story explains why chess masters often travel to Crazy Town.

The main character, Ritter, is someone I identify with: a slightly better-than-average player who occasionally dives into the game headfirst, but never sticks with it long enough to get really good. Like me, this comes and goes. During this story, he's playing in an informal tournament at a local restaurant in his home city of San Francisco.

When he stumbles upon a dusty store selling an eclectic mix of second-hand items, he demonstrates that he's never seen a single episode of The Twilight Zone by actually going inside. He finds a treasure--a watch he recognizes as one once owned by Paul Morphy.

Paul Morphy
Morphy lived before there was an official world champion (1837-1884), but he was acknowledged as being the best in the world at the time. But he also eventually descended into a sad life of paranoia and isolation.

Ritter has researched other chess masters and in the files he keeps at his home, he finds old photographs that indicate the watch had been owned by two world champions, Wilheim Steinitz and Alexander Alkehine.  Both had been brilliant, nigh-unbeatable players. Both had eventually gone nuts.

Wilhelm Steinitz

The watch was stopped at 11:57 pm, but that night, it starts ticking at exactly that time. And Ritter suddenly finds himself able to visualize chess boards and games perfectly, playing brilliant mental games against himself and, possibly, the ghosts of the watch's previous owners.

Alexander Alkehine

Ritter rips through other players--including two he knew were better than he usually is--at the tournament the next day. He easily defeats a chess master who was observing the tournament. The next night, he is still playing game after game in his head. Does the watch possess a psychic memory of the abilities of its previous owner?

But Ritter is also very aware that the previous owners of the watch all sacrificed their sanity for the game. To avoid the same fate, Ritter soon decides what he must do with the watch, which leads to a really fun ending to a fascinating story.

"Midnight by the Morphy Watch" is in a four-way tie in my mind as Leiber's best short story along with "Ill-Met in Lankhmar," "A Pail of Air," and "Four Ghosts in Hamlet." Even if I wasn't currently obsessing on chess, I would have enjoyed reading it again.

So excuse me for now. I'm going to play a game of chess while reading a Sherlock Holmes story.
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