Monday, March 09, 2009


(1933) and THE GROVE OF DOOM (1933) by Maxwell Grant

Reviewed by Evan C. Price

Maxwell Grant was the house pseudonym used by writer and professional magician Walter B. Gibson for Street and Smith's The Shadow Magazine, which followed the adventures of a mysterious crime-fighter. Lamont Cranston, alter ego The Shadow, and confidante Margot Lane are probably best known from the radio program (1937-1954) that originally featured Orson Welles as Cranston. Gibson was amazingly prolific with his novel-length magazine stories -- he wrote over 250 of them in 15 years (remaining stories were penned by Theodore Tinsley and Bruce Elliott) -- and though his writing betrays a certain haste Gibson's work could be tough and atmospheric in a manner alien to the sanitized, simplified radio program.

Six Men of Evil is #24 of the series, originally published on February 15, 1933. In Tilson, Illinois, businessman Earl Northrup steals bond securities from an associate, Hanscom, and a secretary who witnessed the act finds himself accused when Hanscom reveals that Northrup had been traveling with him at the time of the robbery. In Barmouth, Maryland, bank cashier Sherman Brooks is placed under arrest for absconding with $220,000 he was ordered to transport to a civic relief committee. Brooks claims innocence -- Thurber, the chairman of the committee, arrived to deliver the money himself -- but the chairman was in a board meeting, and has witnesses to prove it.

In a darkened office somewhere in Manhattan, The Shadow examines newspaper stories sent to him by his various agents. The stories focus on unsolved cases that have some "twisted element of crime," and it isn't long before our hero connects the Tilson and Barmouth incidents. The bizarre pattern continues in Dalton, Georgia, with the murder of a real estate tycoon whose son claims he was framed by his father's associate, Thomas Rodan. The Shadow learns that three men with alibis -- Northrup, Thurber and Rodan – all bear a striking facial resemblance.

An engaging pulp adventure, Six Men of Evil finds Gibson having fun with one of his nuttier scenarios. Typical for the series, dialogue can be stiff and characters depicted in broad strokes. Gibson's strength is in projecting the all-pervading menace that extends to his hero, a borderline wack job seemingly everywhere, escaping into the dark with his maniacal laugh and using twin .45s to annihilate scores of opponents. This is not the same protagonist of the radio program, who in his true identity as Cranston was defined as a debonair Nick Charles type. The identity of Gibson's Shadow -- not actually Cranston, who is merely one of many agents -- would not be revealed until The Shadow Unmasks (1937). I enjoy the radio programs but find The Shadow’s enigmatic presence in Gibson’s writing to be appropriately unnerving. Six Men of Evil is from a peak period before publishers took away much of the character’s mystery with the addition of an origin story and love interest (Margo, created for radio and foisted on the pulps).

Part of what kept this series fresh -- at least, as fresh as anything could be for over 300 stories -- was the change in character focus. With Six Men Gibson zeroes in on the criminals’ victims, their relatives and co-workers. The pattern of crimes is predictable, but Gibson avoids redundancy through distinctive and forceful relationships (e.g., real estate mogul Davenport and Perry, his alcoholic son).

By 1933 Gibson had been working on the series for not even two years. The author wrote incredibly fast -- he had to deliver a pair of novel-length tales monthly -- so fast that by the time one issue was published he was several stories ahead and could no longer remember the plot of what was hitting the newsstands. The Grove of Doom, #37 from September 1, 1933, is a solid entry, probably the best of the dozen that I've read and an indication of the series' increasingly bizarre path.

On Long Island Sound, Harvey Chittenden has returned to his home at Lower Beechview to settle with his wife, Mildred. Harvey is first in line to inherit Upper Beechview, where his father Galbraith resides; half-brothers Zachary and Wilbur are intent on keeping Harvey from that inheritance, even if it means hiring gunmen to lay siege to his home. Meanwhile, in the grove situated between Harvey and Galbraith's property, an unseen creature is picking off anyone unfortunate enough to wander in -- like Galbraith's attorney, Pearson, and private detective Calvin Merrick.

At a nearby country club, Lamont Cranston observes Pearson and Merrick's disappearances in the grove and investigates as The Shadow. It is a futile search: he finds no bodies in the grove, no trace of whomever or whatever took them, but emerges unscathed under the baffled eye of Mildred Chittenden. Mildred's marriage to Harvey is disintegrating, as the husband's feud with his father and veiled threats from his siblings have caused him to be cold and remote. Mildred takes emotional comfort from Harvey's close friend and caretaker, Craig Ware, who has his own private conflict with Harvey.

The Shadow eventually learns that whatever sinister presence has crawled into the grove is connected to the names Lei Chang and Koon Woon. In order to learn their significance he must interrogate mystic savant Choy Lown in his booby-trapped living quarters beneath an antique shop in Chinatown.

Not so much an adventure as a horror tale interspersed with gangland shootouts, Grove goes in various directions but Gibson keeps style and tone consistent and, as usual, shows a master's skill in creating atmosphere. Harvey and Mildred's unstable marriage (and Harvey's deadly conflict with his brothers) is reflected in the wild and mysterious nature of the grove, a symbolism that gives the goofy proceedings a strong base. This is an exciting tale almost 80 years after publication, with many tense sequences: anything involving the grove, to start, as well as our hero finding his way through a maze of traps in Choy Lown's lair. It's a shame that Universal Pictures' THE SHADOW (1994) relied on an original screenplay (by David Koepp -- strike two), since Gibson's work is so visual and imaginative that it could be quite effective translated to the screen.

Six Men of Evil was reprinted in 2007 by Nostalgia Ventures in a single volume with The Devil Monsters (#263 from February 1, 1943). The Grove of Doom was reprinted the same year with The Masked Lady (#184 from October 15, 1939).

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