14 November 2007

The Shadow in Garden of Death

Garden of Death (1941)
By Walter B. Gibson writing a Maxwell Grant

It’s easy to pick up another adventure of The Shadow once you have finished one. They’re short (40,000 words is standard) and usually a single shot of the mysterious detective-avenger isn’t enough to satisfy my cravings. So, I followed up Chain of Death with Garden of Death. Later I may tell you about Atoms of Death and Master of Death, but let’s just say that if you write three hundred or so Shadow novels, you would start to run out of unique titles too.

Garden of Death appeared first in the 1 October 1941 issue of The Shadow twice-monthly magazine. During the 1940s, the series of novels were getting less epic, and Garden of Death is mostly a pedestrian effort with a small scope. Two chemical company owners are competing for a Somnotone, a drug invented by horticulturist Theophilus Malbary. One of the owners ends up dead, along with two members of his household, from some kind of poison gas.

The Shadow, in a moment completely out of left field, gets attacked by an orangutan while searching the house. Yes, Walter Gibson can still pull some weird ones, even in a lesser novel. Oh, a killer puma disguised as an ocelot, a giant vampire bat, and a strangling ficus plant show up as well. Which, I’m sorry to say, makes the book sound much more interesting than it actually is. The middle section slogs on too long, and only in the last three chapters does the pace pick up for the interesting, animal-filled wrap-up. The scenes in the conservatory (which is far from a “Garden of Death,” but the magazine needed a snappy title for the cover) and the discovery that Malbray uses the flowers as a sort of naturalist clock, just didn’t grab my attention.

Gibson does try something unusual for a mystery novel: he has the hero and his accomplices figure out the entire plot not long after the middle of the book—and they let the readers know it. The rest of the story is about how our heroes try to bring down the villain of the piece with this knowledge. Gibson set up an interesting challenge with this, but doesn’t fully succeed. It's another reason the book sags in the middle. That the murderer's identity is pretty transparent even before this doesn’t help, either.

Still, the animal attacks and the villain’s death-by-ficus make for amusing reads. Next time I read a Shadow novel—a few months will pass before I feel the urge to grab another—I'll switch over to one of Gibson's earlier entries, when his and the publisher’s enthusiasm was higher.

Garden of Death is currently available in a single volume with The Vampire Murders.