For this week's selection I am indebted to Almanack reader Frank Spremulli. Noting that I was admirer of the Master of Darkness, he kindly took this and three other Shadow mags to the post office and had them delivered to my doorstep. Thanks Frank!
To call "Trail of Vengeance" a forgotten book is cheating a little, because while it's pretty well forgotten, it's not yet a book. To date, over half of The Shadow's 325 pulp adventures have reprinted in one form or another (most of them by the folks at Nostalgia Ventures), but this one, number 257 in the series, is still awaiting its turn.
It's been a good many years since I've read a Shadow novel from this era, and I have to rate it several notches below my favorites - the first six or eight in the series - which I remember as being excellent. In the beginning, the Shadow was a mysterious and fascinating being seen only through the eyes of agents. And his agents knew little more about him than the readers - who knew nothing at all. The concept was fresh and new, and very, very cool. No one was certain if the Shadow was a being of flesh and blood, or more akin to a force of nature.
But by 1942, our hero had lost most of his mystery. Readers knew that he was in reality the former ace aviator Kent Allard, and that his seemingly supernatural qualities were the result of magic tricks or science. And in this story, the Shadow falls victim, time and again, to his own mistakes and miscalculations. He performs so poorly, in fact, that he eventually has to be rescued by two of his agents.
Sadly, it's not only the Shadow who's off his game, but Walter Gibson as well. Though Gibson had long since proven himself a master of the showing-not-telling school of fiction, this story is mostly just told, often from several viewpoints in the same scene, and sometimes from the viewpoint of two people at once. The result is a novel that reads more like a synopsis, detailing what happens and why without ever really engaging the reader.
And Gibson does a bit of pandering to fans of the radio show. At one point, Detective Joe Cardona reflects that he's heard a rumor that the Shadow has the ability to make himself invisible by clouding men's minds, a skill learned in Tibet. And though Margo Lane is absent from this tale, there's a reference to her, calling her Lamont Cranston's "girlfriend." The Shadow with a girlfriend? Yikes.
BUT, despite all my griping, I did enjoy reading this, if only for the experience of seeing the Shadow in his natural habitat. I've read Shadow novels in mass paperbacks old and new, in hardcover, in facsimile trade paperback, on Palm Pilot, in PDF format, on Kindle and in Nostalgia Ventures volumes, but until now never directly from a pulp magazine. And for that I have to say thank you, once again, to Mr. Frank Spremulli.
More Forgotten Books at pattinase!