02 April 2008

The Shadow in The Black Falcon

The Black Falcon (1934)
By Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

Time for more from The Shadow!

It’s a great time to be a fan of the Dark Avenger, the first true superhero. Starting in 2006, Nostalgia Ventures is releasing new editions of the classic Shadow pulp novels from the 1930s and ‘40s. So far they have published sixteen volumes, each containing two novels along with historical essays and bonus features. This is the first time in decades that the original novels have been in print; previously I had to read them in downloaded PDF form. Amazingly, you can even find them in bookstores, since Nostalgia Ventures has a deal with Borders (they’re in the Mystery section, although at my local store they are filed under “Nostalgia Ventures” as the author—strange). You can also order them online.

I’ve started collecting the volumes, but getting around to reading them is another affair. I just finished the first novel in Volume #5, The Black Falcon. I can see why the editors selected it: it’s a quintessential early Shadow adventure and one of the best I’ve read.

Like the overwhelming majority of Shadow novels, The Black Falcon was written by the character’s creator, Walter B. Gibson, under the house pseudonym of “Maxwell Grant.” It was published in the 1 February 1934 issue of The Shadow Magazine. A criminal mastermind who calls himself the Black Falcon, and who dresses in an unassuming black mask, has started kidnapping wealthy socialites and leaving taunting notes about his upcoming abductions for Police Commissioner Weston to find. One of the Black Falcon’s targets is Lamont Cranston, and seems that the criminal knows that the Shadow uses Cranston as one of his identities.

Gibson spins his usual web of twists and turns, with the Shadow constantly surprising the reader and the villain with his ability to appear in the right place at the right time through a series of clever deceptions. The mixture here between gangland intrigue and atmospheric mystery is typical of the early Shadow novels, and I think Gibson was at his best with this balance. The action with the blazing automatics in the fists of the Shadow is thrilling when it appears, but the story doesn’t depend on it to stay engrossing. The Black Falcon remains compelling all the way through, and turns especially tense when it appears the titular villain has captured the Shadow and uncovered one of his secret identities.

The Black Falcon has two notable features for fans of the series. First, it contains a rare appearance by the real Lamont Cranston. In popular culture, Cranston is often mistaken for the Shadow’s true identity. Actually, there is an actual Lamont Cranston who allows the Shadow to use his identity while he is off traveling the world. Second, Gibson still describes the Shadow as having some kind of horribly disfigured face that he hides behind disguises or the black folds of his costume. He reveals it only to terrify his foes. This element would eventually drop out of the stories and the Shadow would unmask as World War I aviator Kent Allard. Gibson uses the scarred face here for a terrific, horror-tinged climax. Unfortunately, this would be one of the last times this device was used.

Next in Volume #5, a Shadow adventure in the full-action mode of the later novels, The Salamanders. Stay tuned.