10 May 2013

The Shadow in Gangdom’s Doom

Gangdom’s Doom (1931)
By Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

I promised when I reviewed The Devil Monsters that I would leap back to the early days of the Shadow and one of his classic-style adventures. This is almost as far back as I can get without re-reading The Living Shadow: published in the 1 December 1931 issue of the Shadow’s own magazine, Gangdom’s Doom is only the fifth story of the series. The character was coming together and his popularity taking off. For this novel, author Walter B. Gibson decided to have the Master of the Night tackle head-on the public’s fear about the crime wave ripping apart the nation in the early 1930s. He sent the Shadow to Chicago, the capital of organized crime, and set him to the task of wiping out the empire of the mob.

Few Shadow novels speak so directly about the period in which they were written. The American public was sick of organized crime and pushed the government to crack down on it. They wanted the Volstead Act thrown out and these murderers with it. The transition from the hard-boiled detective of the 1920s to the “avenger detective” of the Shadow, a forerunner of the superhero, was a natural evolution of U.S. citizens’ desire for action against the legions of criminals.

But the Shadow also took into account people’s fascination with the mysterious world of crime that they openly detested: he was a ghostly, frightening figure himself, and allowed readers to thrill to the dark appeal of the soldiers of the underworld while watching an avenger out-think and demolish them.

Gangdom’s Doom opens on a shocker. Claude Fellows, one of the Shadow’s agents who appeared in the previous four novels, arrives in Chicago to begin his employer’s campaign against the rackets. Claude Fellows meets with Horace Prescott, a society booze-peddler who wants to escape the business. But before Fellows can get the man out of Chicago, killers gun down Prescott on the street. When Fellows heads to police headquarters to tell deputy commissioner Barney Higgins all that he knows about the Shadow’s plans, another machine-gun assault kills Fellows!

Yep, one of the Shadow’s supporting cast gets killed in the opening two chapters of the book. This is the only time one of the Shadow’s agents dies, and it’s a gutsy story move that hooks readers within only a few pages. Here we see Walter B. Gibson plotting at his best, pulling his audience along at a relentless pace as each chapter ups the tension. The Shadow’s war against Chicago’s gangsters has hardly started, and already one of his most trusted men has gotten brutally killed.

Harry Vincent, the Shadow’s best-known agent, arrives in Chicago two days later to pick up the case. The Shadow’s main targets are the city’s kingpin, Nick Savoli, and his principle lieutenant, Mike Borrango. Savoli is in competition with Irish gangster Michael Larrigan for control of the underworld. Vincent goes to work for one of Savoli’s men, Marmosa, who runs a gambling joint. Also arriving in Chicago the same day are two New York shooters of considerable repute. The first is a supporting villain character from the previous Shadow novels, Steve Cronin, who has come west to work as Savoli’s bodyguard. The other gunman is Monk Thurman, a thug with more quick-draw skill than anybody in town. Unlike Cronin, Thurman won’t hook himself exclusively to one side or the other in the coming gang war.

After a mysterious figure in black stops Cronin’s attempt to assassinate deputy D.A. Clarendon, the New York killer informs Savoli that Chicago now has a Shadow problem: “He’s liable to be anywhere—he’s liable to be anybody.” That’s a succinct description of the Shadow’s abilities in these early books, and why they are such a thrill to read.

The Shadow proceeds to Red Harvest and Yojimbo the crooks of Chicago into annihilating each other. The last few chapters have the city descending into a bloodbath of rival organizations filling each other with lead before the showdown between Savoli, Cronin, and the Shadow. Although the Shadow has no problem killing criminals in other novels, here he lets the evildoers take care of the job of offing each other. Perhaps he was showing off his manipulation skills.

Gibson discovered early in his career as the character’s main writer that the Shadow was flexible enough to fit into any type of crime or mystery plot. Gangdom’s Doom is an ideal example: Gibson abandons any aspects of murder mystery or whodunit for pure gangster melodrama. There are gats and speakeasies and hidden gambling dens and Tommy gun-hefting enforcers and hit jobs; just about everything a reader might expect from a mob epic (except, oddly, “dames”). Gibson lays on the gangster drama mighty heavy, too: the goons call their machine guns “typewriters,” professional killers are “torpedoes,” and there is a Sicilian assassin duo known as the Homicide Twins. The Shadow fits into all this without missing a sprocket hole, serving as the “mystery” of the story. He flits around the edges of the mob machinery, manipulating events and occasionally bursting into sinister action at the right points.

The Shadow is always an enigmatic figure—it’s his modus operandi after all to be inscrutable—but it is astonishing how little we know about him this early in his career and how effective that lack of knowledge is. The “Lamont Cranston” identity doesn’t even get mentioned (it was introduced in the second novel, Eyes of the Shadow, and the actual Cranston showed up in the third, The Shadow Laughs). The Shadow remains off-page most of the time, and usually when he’s present readers won’t realize it until later because the hero is sunk into one of his impenetrable disguises. The Shadow’s principle alter ego won’t fool most readers (Harry Vincent’s suspicions ID him early on) but the finale still works because Gibson knows how to deliver a climactic reveal. Strangely, some of the top villains get away with sentences lighter than death, perhaps because Gibson thought he might want to feature them as returning characters in later stories.

Gangdom’s Doom is well-executed and constructed with the right amount of appearances from its hero—and one stunner of an opening—but my personal preferences lean toward Shadow novels that are either in Gothic mode (The Grove of Doom) or dealing with dark SF superheroics (The Black Hush). It was harder for me to get involved in the gangland setting and the myriad of mob-types that show up here. I acknowledge this as an exciting piece of pulp plotting, but for me it falls in the middle-range of Shadow adventures.

Gangdom’s Doom was one of the Shadow novels that reached mass-market paperback through Bantam books during the late-‘60s and early ‘70s. Bantam tried to replicate the success of their paperback re-issues of the Doc Savage adventures, but the Shadow never took off the same way. Gangdom’s Doom was #7 in Bantam’s numbering for the series.

More Shadow coming up: the 1994 movie on Blu-ray, and the uncanny pulp story Road of Crime.