Thursday, August 11, 2011


A few weeks back, I wrote that I was thinking of starting a Tuesday series in which I would discuss, say, all the John Carter of Mars books in order. Or all the RKO Dick Tracy movies. Or whatever other series I might think of. The idea would be for me to cover several series at a time, so that I might post about John Carter one week, then Dick Tracy the next, so that the idea doesn’t become stale.

But I don’t want to obligate myself to have another weekly post—real life often threatens to get in the way of the posts I already do. (Believe it or not, I have to work for a living just like all you common folk, rather than devout my time entirely to sharing my wisdom with others. Intolerable, I know, but tragically true.)  So, instead, the READ/WATCH ‘EM IN ORDER series will be an occasional Thursday offering, mixed in with the random posts that usually appear on that day.

We’ll start today—not with John Carter or Dick Tracy, but with the Shadow.

The first issue of The Shadow magazine was published in April 1931. The last was Summer 1949. The run totaled 325 tales of adventure and mystery—with 286 of them written by the prolific and talented Walter Gibson.

{For more details on the story behind the creation of the Shadow magazine, check out the appropriate chapter in my book Radio by the Book. I know it's a little pricey, but you can always ask your local library to pick up a copy.}

Gibson’s Shadow stories are the best (though Theodore Tinsley also penned some excellent ones). In one issue, he might have the Shadow match wits with a super-criminal or mad scientist. In another, he might take down an extortion ring or gang of thugs robbing banks. Every once in awhile, he’d help corral some foreign spies.

Gibson had a talent for putting in nifty last-minute twists into his well-constructed plots. He also gave us great action scenes, usually pitting the Shadow and his blazing .45s against a squad of underworld killers.

Most Shadow novels were independent of the others—bad guys only rarely survived for second appearance. But Gibson did occasionally bring notable villains back again, or interconnect several novels in another way.

The Hand (May 15, 1938) was the first of a series of novels in which the Shadow breaks up a number of different rackets in different cities. Five racketeers managed to go underground when the police closed in on them. All five have set up new rackets—each of them becoming a finger on a hand of crime.  It’s up to the Shadow to bring all five of these men down.

The Hand deals with the crook who remained in New York City, setting up a blackmail operation. The idea was to frame a series of rich guys for various crimes or indiscretions, then force them to pay up to keep things quiet.

The Shadow soon gets a line on the blackmail gang, but the super-competent crime fighter has a run of bad luck. In a really fun opening action scene, he shows up when the bad guys are forcing a rich man’s son to participate in a robbery. He manages to get the son away from the crooks, but an explosion knocks him flat. The crooks get the son back. Several of the Shadow’s agents snatch him back from the crooks, but the odd game of ping pong continues when the crooks get him back from the agents. You almost need a score card to keep track.

Later, the Shadow (through more pure bad luck) gets spotted in a nightclub full of armed thugs. Only his skill with his pistols and some insanely risky tactics get himself out alive.

But even bad luck can’t keep the Shadow down. Eventually, with the help of an unexpected ally, he manages to trick the gang into walking into a trap and providing the evidence needed to clear the various people they’ve framed.

The Hand isn’t the best Shadow novel, but it’s a good, solid mystery with several typically skillful twists at the end. It also provides us with several interesting supporting characters, most especially the person who becomes an ally of the Shadow. 

The gang he battles is hardly the smartest he’s ever gone against, but I like the fact that plain dumb luck works against him early on. It gives the story an interesting ambiance. Gibson, the creator of this version of the Shadow, understood the character perfectly and sets up the situation in such a way that we never doubt the hero’s abilities. Even when he walks into a trap, he’s still too cool for words.

But the blackmail ring is only one finger out of the five that make up the Hand. So the Shadow will soon be taking a trip to Philadelphia to deal with Murder for Sale. We’ll check in with the master crime-fighter again some time in the future to see how that goes.

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