27 September 2014

The Shadow in The Ghost of the Manor

The Ghost of the Manor (1933)
Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

Too much time has passed since I spent quality time with the Shadow. The last time was over a year ago, when the 1994 film was slated for its first Blu-release. Since the last Shadow novel I read was a character-driven and realistic noirish drama (Road of Crime), the obvious choice now is to turn toward the Gothic and mysterious realms of the Shadow’s adventures.

The Ghost of the Manor (originally published in The Shadow Magazine for 15 June 1933) uses many of the traditional trappings of the “Old Dark House” sub-genre. As author Walter B. Gibson demonstrated repeatedly, the Shadow could fit into any crime genre without stretching. However, the character was uniquely at home in two: super-crime fighting tales (The Cobra, The Voodoo Master, The Black Hush), and Victorian-style gloomy mysteries (The Grove of Doom). The Ghost of the Manor is a good example of the latter, culled from the early years of the magazine when Gibson could seem to do no wrong. It won’t satisfy the action crowd, but it’s definitely the mystery fan’s kind of Shadow adventure.

Gibson makes the subgenre for this novel clear from the opening chapters with one of the famed clich├ęs of the “Old Dark House” tale: relatives of an eccentric rich man gather in a grand manor home late at night to hear the reading of the recently deceased’s will. The dead man in this case is millionaire Caleb Delthern, one of a long line of Deltherns who have inhabited the halls of a mansion in the city of Newbury for centuries.

At the nighttime gathering, the family lawyer reveals Caleb Delthern’s last will and testament to the surviving grandchildren, with one of the five in absentia (but who has named Lamont Cranston as his proxy… interesting). The will dictates a property split, with the eldest surviving heir receiving half of the thirteen million dollar inheritance and the other four dividing the remainder. Squabbling immediately ensues, and that’s when the sudden eruption of ghostly laughter through the hall sways Winstead Delthern, the principle inheritor, from denying his absent cousin Warren Berringer his share of the wealth.

The laugh comes from no ghost, of course: it’s the Shadow. He is acting in the interests of the real Lamont Cranston to protect the Cranston’s friend, young Warren Berringer, from losing his rightful inheritance to the scheming of the three oldest heirs, brothers Winstead, Humphrey, and Jasper Delthern.

This event would appear to conclude the Shadow’s dealings with the Delthern legacy. However, the will won’t be officially concluded until all five heirs gather together in the mansion in a month. Anything might happen before then, and since the will stipulates that the oldest living heir will receive the largest share, it seems likely one of the younger grandchildren, such as the unscrupulous Jasper Winstead, might seek a fast route to the top.

On cue, right after Warren Berringer arrives in Newbury to visit his crabby cousin Winstead, someone or something strangles Winstead and hurls him down the staircase to his death. So the game’s afoot, and the Shadow returns to Newbury from New York to trap the killer. More people start dying at Delthern Manor, and the finger of suspicion points toward Warren Berringer.

Berringer has some help: the president of the City Club, Clark Brosset, who has strong disdain for the wastrel Jasper Delthern, lends Berringer assistance trying to steer clear of the family’s scheming. The police who show up on the case, Chief Gorson and the over-enthusiastic Detective Tewiliger, are more on the ball than the fumbling officials often are in mystery novels. There’s also the tantalizing presence of the youngest grandchild, Marcia Wardrop, who has lived in Delthern Manor all of her life and has an important part to play that the novel keeps hidden without drawing too much attention to it.

The Ghost of the Manor moves at a slower pace than the majority of Shadow stories, although it still hooks the reader to keep turning the pages. There is little in the way of physical action until a short burst during the finale because it hews close to the classic murder mystery in structure and pacing. This is the nearest any of the early Shadow novels I’ve read has come to a traditional whodunit. The major difference is that the detective solving the case is an enigmatic wraith who flits in and out of the story… and also a few more dead bodies show up than usual for this sort of story. Warren Berringer, the type of character who would normally be a suspect in a mystery novel, instead serves as the protagonist and proxy hero. Most of the plot follows Warren struggling to maintain his innocence as the murders keep piling up to accuse him.

But never underestimate Walter Gibson for pulling out surprises. So many of his Shadow novels deal in long-game trickery: from the Shadow, from the villains, and from the story structure itself. The Ghost of the Manor makes an unexpected shift in direction at the three-quarters mark, when the murderer willingly reveals him/herself. The mystery suddenly doubles, which makes the conclusion much more surprising, even though what it actually reveals isn’t particularly shocking. This is execution and pacing trumping a generic story idea.

The title is a touch deceptive: there is no “ghost” in Delthern Manor in the sense that anyone suspects supernatural activity. Regular readers of the Shadow’s chronicles would suspect that maybe one of the criminals is using a fake ghost as a blind. However, the only ghost in the story is the Shadow, who masks his activities to balance the scales of justice behind the suspicion that it is actually the spirit Caleb Delthern interfering to see that the rightful heirs receive their reward.

The Ghost of the Manor closes with a sequence where the Shadow, ensconced in his Sanctum, writes down the case in his private annals. This large tome is, supposedly, where “Maxwell Grant,” the pseudonymous author of the Shadow novels, receives his inspiration. It’s rare that readers witness the Shadow making final case notes, and Gibson uses this device to 1) wrap up the final mysteries the police did not cover in their own explanation in the previous chapter; and 2) allow the Shadow to excuse some actions that would seem a bit, uhm, cavalier regarding human life. Gibson must have sensed that the Shadow required some excuse for the way justice was dispensed that didn’t make him appear as if he crossed the line or just allowed people to die.

Although Road of Crime and The Ghost of the Manor stand far apart in their tone, they have in common a low-key approach to heroics from the Shadow. I think I’ll look to the super-science and superheroics of the Master of the Night next: The Thunder King. (I always have to read two Shadow novels back-to-back; they’re short.)