19 February 2009

The Shadow in Six Men of Evil

Six Men of Evil (1933)
By Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

I haven’t reviewed a Shadow novel in a stretch. Time to rectify that.

Let me reorient everyone. Of all the pulp heroes, The Shadow remains my favorite, and it’s because he benefited from a brilliant plot craftsman who steered his adventures: Walter B. Gibson. Gibson had a natural hand with story-crafting, not only thinking up deviously bizarre crimes and schemes, but figuring out the perfect way to plot them out to ensnare the reader in mystery. The Shadow’s greatest asset is that he is inscrutable, can be everywhere and nowhere, and no one knows who he is. (Even when Gibson, in a 1937 novel, revealed the Shadow’s real identity, he still remained an utter enigma.)

Gibson constantly changed the way in which he plotted The Shadow’s adventures. Sometimes The Shadow takes the center stage, moving through an action-oriented plot. At other times, he remains deep in the darkness at the edge of the story while the reader watches the criminals and The Shadow’s many agents work against each other until the time comes that the dark-cloaked hero shows his manipulating hand. Gibson was also by profession a stage-magician, and The Shadow novels at their best are like grand magical tricks performed on the reader.
Who was The Shadow?

No one knew. Gangsters recognized him as an overpowering menace. The police of New York knew him only as a fierce foe to crime. Studious criminologists had expressed the well-founded opinion that the Shadow was the single factor that prevented the balance of justice from swinging to the side of lawlessness.

When crime became rampant, then did The Shadow strike. A living being of the darkness, he came and went unseen. Always, his objective was the stamping out of supercrime.

Dying gangsters had expired with the name of The Shadow upon their blood-flecked lips. Hordes of mobsmen had fallen before The Shadow’s wrath. A man garbed in black, his face unseen beneath the turned-down brim of a slouch hat—that was the spectral form that gangdom called The Shadow!
These words come from the novel Six Men of Evil, another Shadow novel packaged by Nostalgia Ventures in their continuing series of pulp-sized reprints of classic adventures of the original Dark Knight. It’s paired with The Devil Monsters (which I may get to one day) and the usual batch of historical essays, such as an interesting piece of the history of the autogyro, the flying machine that transports our hero to distant locations when the call of crime pulls him from his usual Gotham haunts.

The editors of The Shadow Volume #13 selected these two novels to show extreme opposites of style. In his introduction, Shadow expert Will Murray points out that both stories show a change of pace for Gibson (although I don’t see it that much in Six Men of Evil), and leaves it up to the reader to see how he succeeds.

Six Men of Evil appeared in the 15 February 1933 issue of The Shadow. This was an early period when the magazine was at the height of its circulation and quality, and Walter Gibson seemed to have an endless well of fantastic ideas for Shadow adventures on which to draw.

In typical mysterioso fashion, The Shadow doesn’t enter the story until Chapter VI, and the first mention of the character crops up in the last paragraph of Chapter V. From his Sanctum in New York City, the Avenger of Evil-Doing has come across two apparently unrelated crimes that his brilliant detective mind feels have a common thread: two robberies where an apparently rich, upstanding citizen seems to have appeared in two places at once, giving him a solid alibi and putting the guilt on another man. Readers already have a notion of what is happening from the opening chapters, where six men return from a failed plundering of a lost city in Mexico. Each has “changed” in some way, and the most devious of them, “Charley,” hatches a scheme where they can use their transformation to pull off a magnificent crime.

However, The Shadow knows! Starting from his hidden sanctum, he traces out a further series of these apparetly unlinked crimes leaving innocent parties sitting in jail. The Shadow’s quest for justice eventually leads him to a hidden civilization in Mexico (putting a “Lost World” element into the tale) in his nifty autogyro where he learns the secret behind the six men who have taken a curse and turned it into the perfect opportunity to commit thievery without detection.

Six Men of Evil contains all of what makes the early Shadow novels so much fun. Gibson tosses some thrilling action sequences our way: The Shadow gets involved in a huge gangland shooting match, and there’s a corker of a car chase with an explosive crash for a curtain closer. But most of the story relies on what Gibson could do so well with the premise of the hero: crafting baffling mystery stories around this engimatic figure who can seem to be everywhere at once and who always “knows.” The Shadow piece-by-piece fits together what the six men are scheming and how they have achieved it, and eventually traps them in a finale where the dark-cloaked avenger dispenses justice with his twin .45s. There’s even a detour into Chinatown, a common hunting ground for the Shadow.

The only place where Six Men of Evil falters is in the final build-up, where it appears that the novel has taken an abrupt shift in a different direction. Gibson gets it back on track for the climax, however, which has the right element of surprise and cool vigilantism. None of this “Batman no-kill” rules for The Shadow!