My favourite superhero wasn’t born in the comics. Instead, he came from the pulps, those cheaply produced fiction magazines that entertained the masses during the interwar years and beyond. Several famous characters were born in the pulps: Tarzan, Zorro, Doc Savage, and Conan the Barbarian. But the most popular by far was the mysterious cloaked crime-fighter known simply as The Shadow. The Shadow Magazine ran for over 300 issues, far more than any of the other ‘hero’ pulps. Each issue presented a new story of the dark avenger, the vast majority written by Walter Gibson.
Times changed. Radio and television came along, while paperback books replaced magazines as the most popular form of cheap reading. The Shadow Magazine faded away with the rest of the pulps. However, in the early 1960s, Belmont Books attempted to resurrect The Shadow for a new generation, and they hired Walter Gibson to write the first novel in their new Shadow series. Thus was born, Return of the Shadow.
I acquired my badly battered copy of this book on a shopping trip to Hay-on-Wye, the wonderful little book town that sits on the border between England and Wales.
The story starts in classic Shadow style, with Harry Vincent, the Shadow’s most trusted agent, on stake out in some lonely part of upstate New York. Soon Harry and The Shadow (in disguise as the eccentric millionaire Lamont Cranston) are embroiled in the investigation of the murder of a rich business man. It’s a great set up. A lonely house, a handful of suspects, with the investigation hanging on the order the suspects left the house and the order they all arrived at a dinner party elsewhere. Soon The Shadow is calling in all his top agents, Cliff Marsland, Clyde Burke, Hawkeye, Rutledge Mann, even the mysterious contact man, Burbank. Gibson obviously took the chance to have a little character reunion.
And then, on page 90 of a 140 page book, something very strange happens. The main plot shifts away from the murder investigation and refocuses on a vast, highly unlikely plot involving the kidnapping and substitution of United Nations representatives! It’s almost like someone told Walter Gibson in the middle of writing that the book needed to be less Sherlock Holmes and more James Bond! In fact, I must admit that I found The Shadow a little too chatty and outgoing compared to his more reclusive older pulp self.
Well, of course our hero triumphs in the end. There is one superb moment near the end where The Shadow pulls of a surprise reminiscent of his very first story. There is also a wild and improbable battle with the baddies that comes straight out of the pulp tradition.
If you are unfamiliar with The Shadow, this probably isn’t the book to start your acquaintance. It is fun though and worth picking up should you ever see it in the used bookstore. I believe that another dozen or so novels were printed in the series, though they weren’t written by Gibson. I probably won’t go out of my way to get them, but should I ever come across one, I’ll definitely pick it up.