Thursday, May 23, 2013

Mobsters and Ray Guns.

The July 15, 1935 issue of The Shadow magazine was an important one for several reasons.

First, writer Walter Gibson wrote a longer story than usual. This was actually because he had just gotten a new typewriter and didn't realize the font size was fitting more words per page, but this was probably a factor in allowing him to turn out one of his finest efforts. Its difficult to see where the story could have been trimmed without losing something cool.

Second, it was the first of what would be a number of stories in which the Shadow went up against a super-scientific threat. Up until now, he'd usually been dealing with mobsters and spies. Gibson felt the crime-fighter needed a new kind of threat to properly challenge him.

So, in "Atoms of Death," a scientist invents a disintegrator ray. It's not perfected enough to use as a  weapon, but it can be used to tunnel through earth and rock very quickly. He teams up with some mobsters and soon they are tunneling into banks and jewelry stores.  They dynamite the tunnels afterwards, leaving the police baffled as to how the crooks are actually pulling off their crimes.

Well, they don't fool the Shadow. When the scientist's assistant realizes something untoward is going on, he contacts Harry Vincent--whom he met in a previous story, so he knows Harry is an agent of the Shadow. Mobsters try to whack the guy, but the Shadow and his agents save him.

But the bad guys are smart. When the Shadow investigates their hide-out, he's knocked out by an electrical trap and captured. The Shadow manages to outwit them by convincing them he's just plain old Lamont Cranston and the real Lamont Cranston (who is currently in town) is the Shadow. He has to then prevent the real Cranston from getting kidnapped, but the end result is he gets free and the real Cranston leaves for another overseas hunting trip.

That leaves the Shadow starting from scratch, with no idea where the bad guys have set up their new headquarters. He tries to stop a couple of robberies. The first time, he has to run a gauntlet of gunmen while speeding down the street in a car. The second time, the villains have planted false clues to lure him to the wrong location, where they use machine gunners and a guy tossing grenades to try to finish him off. He fights his way out of this, but makes no progress in finding the hideout.

That's one of the strengths of this story. The head mobsters really are smart, staying one step ahead of the Shadow for most of the novel. In fact, they correctly deduce that mobster Cliff Marsland is really a Shadow undercover agent and kidnap him.

But that gives the Shadow a chance to finally track them down, though he must deliberately allow another of his agents to get captured. The neat part here is that the agent who volunteers for this dangerous job is Rutledge Mann. Mann isn't normally a field agent--he's an investment broker who generally acts as a contact for the field agents. But he gamely steps up to the plate when called upon. I always liked Mann and I was happy to see him get a moment in the limelight.

Anyway, the climax involves the Shadow in disguise sneaking into the hideout, followed by a wild shootout involving both pistols and and disintegrator gun.

And then we get one of Walter Gibson's best-ever twist endings. You thought you knew what was going on with the bad guys? That you understood who was who within their organization? Trust me, you didn't know a thing.

In the recent reprint volume that included this story, pulp historian Will Murray refers to this story as a "must-read." He's right, of course. If you're a fan of the Shadow, you gotta read this one.

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