15 June 2013

The Shadow in Road of Crime

Road of Crime (1933)
By Walter Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

No, I’m not done with the Shadow yet! Seeing the 1994 movie on Blu-ray only made me want to rush back to the source.

Reading any Shadow adventure begins with suspense even before the first paragraph: what sort of tale will Walter Gibson spin using a hero character who can fit into almost any crime story? The Shadow has starred in gun-blazing action yarns, street-level noir dramas, weird Gothic mysteries, and super villain-driven SF adventure. The Shadow himself may never change, but the circumstances around him shift with each new exploit.

Road of Crime (first published in the 1 October 1933 issue of The Shadow Magazine) contains a unique story style for the Shadow: a character study of redemption. I’ve never read a Shadow novel anything like it. In exchange for constant thrills, Walter Gibson serves readers a constrained personal crime drama—and it works. A crook finds his way back from the pits of the mob underworld, and the excitement rises from the interweaving of the Shadow’s actions with the main character on his unexpected trip from the lower depths.

In Road of Crime, Gibson uses a “proxy hero,” which he once described (in a bit of a convoluted sentence) as “the person, along with the others like him, who is matched against the villains of the piece, in a theme which is really the personal saga of that all-important lead character, who is developed through his influence and action toward the lesser figures.” Since the Shadow himself is a persona on the fringes of these early stories, proxy heroes are useful anchors for the audience, someone to root for and give them a perspective on the Shadow’s interventions.

The part of proxy hero in Road of Crime belongs to Graham Wellerton, “gentlemen of crime.” Graham’s father lost his fortune when his brother-in-law, Ezra Talboy, swindled him. Deprived of an inheritance and under the pressure of blackmail from a gangster moll, Carma Urstead, who tricked Graham into marrying her, Graham moved into the rackets. Carma continues to turn the screws on him so he has to keep forking over his take from his various jobs to her.

Gibson lays out this backstory in an unnatural fashion, by having Graham explain it all to Carma during one of her trips to collect her “allowance.” (Huh, think the name “Carma” is a coincidence?) Graham rambles at length about events that both characters already know just for the benefit of the reader—and the Shadow, who listens in secret on the conversation. The ploy is an almost necessary evil; Gibson could have done this in an another fashion, but the backstory was something he wanted laid down fast so he could get to the rest of the story, which is the downward and then upward journey of accidental mob genius Graham Wellerton.

When Graham heads toward Grand Rapids, MI to pull a heist for his New York boss, his cutthroat competition in the bank-robbing world, the unscrupulous Wolf Daggert, intercepts him. Graham ends up in a ditch, left for dead, and wanders along familiar sights until he arrives in the last place he ever wanted to see again… Southwark, the hometown where his father lost his business to Uncle Talboy. At his lowest point, Graham gets tossed in prison when a cop finds him wandering in the town.
Whatever else his career elsewhere might have been, Graham had never done wrong within the bounds of Southwark. Yet this was his reward—in the one place where he had lived an honest life.

Graham Wellerton had come home after years of wandering. Unwelcomed, unrecognized, he had been sentenced to jail on a charge of vagrancy. Graham Wellerton did not care. His mob had gone over to Wolf Daggert—the connection was ended.
This is eight chapters into the book, and you may have noticed I’ve mentioned the Shadow only once so far, as the eavesdropper on Graham Wellerton’s story. But this is Graham’s story, often powerfully so. The Shadow is the man behind the curtain, he’s Clare Quilty, he’s the good-guy Keyser Söze.

But the Shadow does not enter the story as the reformer for the smudged soul of Graham Wellerton, giving pedantic lectures. Instead, he facilitates Graham’s recovery by crushing the unscrupulous men (and woman) with his tricks and unerring accurate gunfire. The Shadow doesn’t set out from the start with the aim of redeeming a troubled gangster. Graham Wellerton begins the story as a top-level mob operative set in his ways, and the Shadow has no reason to think this will change. Through accident (or destiny, as the text refers to it), Graham ends up routed from the titular Road of Crime and into the normalcy of Southwark where he can work out the villainy his uncle did against his father, as well as find kind hearted souls in the people who take him in: local manufacturer Ralph Delkin and his daughter Eunice. Since Ezra Talboy is about to use unethical business methods to move in on Ralph Delkin, Graham comes out of his stupor to do something.

Road of Crime features only sporadic bursts of action, but the Shadow remains as lethal as ever, and the villains rarely leave the scene of a crime alive. The Shadow kills more people directly than in the sub-machine opera of Gangdom’s Doom written two years earlier, where the hero preferred to trick the mobsters into shooting each other. Readers who want nonstop action from the Shadow won’t find the character drama of Road of Crime satisfying… unless they give the story the chance to work it’s unusual spell.

The novel reaches an immensely satisfying climax and wrap-up where Graham’s redemption runs into the snag of a twisty conspiracy in Southwark involving Carma, Wolf Daggert, and the Surprise Mastermind. Gibson’s weaves together his plot with his customary skill in these chapters; the Shadow lays down one of his shock tricks, then lays down the bullets. It’s a roaring, tense finale (with a stunner death of a character type who almost never meets the ultimate fate in the Shadow stories that Gibson wrote) and doesn’t betray the character-driven drama of what came before.

Although the Shadow makes only brief appearances, all the major agents all play parts: Rutledge Mann, investment banker; Cliff Marsland, insider with the mob; Clyde Burke, newspaper man; Burbank, the communications hub; and Harry Vincent, the jack-of-all-trades. Only Vincent and Marsland pop up in Southwark, but they handle their gats well for the finale.

I would not recommend Road of Crime as a reader’s introduction to the Shadow. The unusual approach Gibson takes here will means much more with something to compare it to. Take a shot with The Black Hush and The Grove of Doom first—both among the best of the series—and then the quieter drama here will seem that much more impressive.

(Also: one of the best magazine covers ever for The Shadow!)

I’ve compiled a list of all the Shadow novels I’ve read so far here, if you are interested.