12 November 2007

The Shadow in Chain of Death

Chain of Death (1934)
Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

A couple times during the year, I find myself pulled back to my stacks of reprints from the hero pulps of yesteryear to thrill again to the adventures of Doc Savage, The Spider, G-8 and His Battle Aces, Operator #5, and… The Shadow.

Of all these heroes, The Shadow is the one I enjoy the most. The Doc Savage adventures by Lester Dent are certainly a high adventure kick, but their comic relief grows a touch tedious. How much of that silly pig kickin’ around with Monk can you take? The Spider novels by Norvell Page are about as bonkers as anything written during the time, but their utter insanity means I can only take the loopiness in smaller doses. But I am always surprised with Walter B. Gibson’s cleverness in his Shadow espisodes: considering that he wrote two of these novels a month, he seems to have really taken his time constructing clever mystery plots.

I just finished reading another Shadow novel, Chain of Death, which appeared in The Shadow magazine in 1934. This is one of Gibson’s less action-oriented entries, and leans toward suspense and deduction. The principal conceit is two sets of codes that the Shadow must crack if he is to get to the bottom of “Crime, Inc.,” an organization of criminal planners in which each member only knows two other members, the one who recruited him and the one whom he recruited. They set up the titular chain of death that sends suggestions for crime schemes up and down the links using their coded messages. Imagine what these blokes could have achieved through email! But that would take away from the clandestine fun of hiding the messages. Eventually, the Shadow cracks the code in time to intercept Crime, Inc.’s new scheme aboard a luxury yacht and so bring the novel to an action finale.

The codes are clever ideas, and since I doubt Gibson had the time to concot them both out of nothing (this was the second novel he wrote for that month) he must have had some outside inspiration. The first code uses a simple substitution method, and the codebreakers in the police department decipher it rapidly. But that code is a purposeful blind from Crime, Inc. to distract from the importance of the second code. The second code is not based on the characters, but the spaces between the characters. An entire chapter deals with the Shadow sitting in his sanctum and deducing the meaning of this strange scrawl of symbols, and it makes fascinating reading.

Astonishing that Gibson could come up with this kind of stuff week after week… and keep it up from 1931 until 1949, with only a few breaks! The pulp era was truly a different writing world than what we have today.

Chain of Death is available in single pulp-sized volume with Death’s Premium.