Thursday, March 10, 2016

Hands in the Dark

The story from the May 1932 issue of The Shadow Magazine is one of my favorites, though I admit that this opinion is driven in part by nostalgia. The image above is the cover I saw on the paperback rack at Winn Dixie when I was a kid. That cover, painted by the great Jim Steranko, forced me to impulse-buy the book with paper-route money. It served as my introduction to what is arguably pulp fiction's greatest character. Thank you, Mr. Steranko. I owe you one.

So this book, much like paperback reprints of Dick Tracy strips, Dr. Paul Bearer, and Sgt. Rock, is a large part of what made me who I am today. Why the world isn't more openly grateful for this is beyond me.

There's a small irony about that cover. It's actually the wrong cover for that book. The first print run of Shadow reprints published by Pyramid in the early 1970s had an error in which the covers for Hands in the Dark and The Crime Cult were swapped. I bought The Crime Cult soon after and happened to get a later printing with covers fixed. I wondered at the time why they had reused the same cover. Ironically, the proper cover for Hands in the Dark is, if anything, more awesome than the one that inspired me to buy the book.

I've re-read it several times as an adult and it's not just nostalgia that drives my enjoyment of the story. The title comes from an incident in the very first chapter, where a guy alone in a study finds a paper upon which are drawn strange symbols. A pair of hands reach out of the shadows, strangle the guy and takes the paper.

Those symbols are the driving force of the story. Theodore Galvin has recently died and left behind a stash of ill-gotten wealth. But no one--not even his criminal confederates--know where that wealth is hidden. The symbols are a code.

Galvin's nephew Bob, who knows nothing of his late uncle's criminal activities, is kidnapped and replaced with a substitute, something that is possible because Bob has lived in South Africa and no one in New York knows him as an adult. Even so, maintaining that ruse while trying to figure out where the loot is hidden requires at least one more murder to be committed.

The bad guys think the symbols might be a substitution code for a name. This isn't correct, but it does lead them to men with additional information that eventually allows them to find out the real meaning. It also leads to a couple of more murders.

But while all this is going on, the Shadow has taken an interest in the case, drawn to it by the initial unsolved strangulation murder. He keeps popping up at key moments, preventing a couple of murders, avoiding a death trap, rescuing the real Bob Galvin and so one. The villains think they finally get one step ahead of the Shadow just has they find the hidden loot, but pretty much no one ever gets one step ahead of the Shadow and stays there. This leads to a sort-of double climax--a wild shoot-out in a dark room, then another shoot-out in a train car.

As usually, writer Walter Gibson gives us great action scenes and a plot with some nice twists and turns. Of particular note is a sub-plot involving a police detective who is also investigating the case--leading to a particularly well-done twist near the end of the tale.

As an adult, I do think there are a couple of very minor quibbles with the plot--things that are noticeable only because Gibson was normally so good at plot construction. But even these quibbles are so minor that they aren't worth going over in detail.

Let's go back to talking about covers. The original pulp cover was unusual in that the cover actually included the first few paragraphs of the story. This allowed the cover to highlight the symbols that drive so much of the plot and also grab the readers with an atmospheric scene  that includes the line of dialogue "A dead man's message!" That would have been as effective technique for inspiring an impulse buy as Sterenko's cover was forty years later.

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