Walter B. Gibson Essay - Critical Essays


Although Walter B. Gibson’s the Shadow is a very unusual character, he is not a creature invented out of thin air and smoke but a combination of existing traditions within the mystery genre. The exotic atmosphere of Sax Rohmer, the avenging band of men created by Edgar Wallace, the gangsters from the early Black Mask school, newspaper headlines, and the hero with multiple identities (Fantomas, Frank L. Packard’s Jimmie Dale, Johnston McCulley’s Zorro) were all available for Gibson to draw on, even subconsciously. He once referred to the Shadow as a “benevolent Dracula.” It was the idea of a shadowy avenger that was given substance by this consummate storyteller.

The Shadow series is not so much a series of unrelated mysteries with a recurring detective as it is a sequence of stories, none of which can stand completely alone without drawing the reader to its fellows, each of which contributes to an evolving story. The subject of that story is the detective, about whom there is as much mystery as can be unraveled in the plot. If the average detective story can be criticized for not having a solution as imaginative and spellbinding as the mystery itself, then the Shadow series avoids much of that criticism. It has been said of Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) that it is the “perfect” detective story, for, having been left unfinished, it presents no solution to spoil the mystery for the reader. With each novel in the Shadow series, the reader learns more about the mysterious avenger but not everything. New facets of the Shadow’s personality are discovered without exhausting the possibilities for discovering more the next time. Even in the famous pulp magazine novelette “The Shadow Unmasks,” where much is revealed, not all the questions are answered: The Shadow remains largely masked.

Despite his use of force and action, symbolized by his two .45 automatics, and his reputation as the first bringer of death in the pulp detective magazines, the Shadow is as analytical as any detective of the Golden Age, studying clues and weighing evidence before naming the guilty party. He is a law unto himself, sentencing as well as accusing, a characteristic he shares with Jimmie Dale and Wallace’s Just Men; some may question his need for agents in his war on crime. In reality, the Shadow cannot be everywhere, although that is the illusion he wishes to create. Through his agents, Harry Vincent, Rutledge Mann, Burbank, Hawkeye, Moe Shrevnitz, Myra Reldon, Margo Lane, and others, he can appear to be omnipresent. They serve not only as his eyes and ears but also as “proxy-heroes” (Gibson’s phrase), to whom the events of the plot happen, thus allowing the Shadow to remain offstage and even more mysterious.

What gives the stories their unique style and flavor is the continued use of motifs and references that have their basis in the lore of the stage magician. Most successful writers of detective novels tend to fill their works with information about fields that they find fascinating but seldom has there been a series that paid such loving attention to the skill of the illusionist. The Shadow possesses a bag of tricks to rival that of the Wizard of Oz. His escapes rival those of Houdini, he is a master of the trick powders that explode at the fingertips, and he can appear or vanish in smoke and flame.

The Shadow assumes several identities that allow him to mix with suspects, different classes in society, and the police. His most ubiquitous identity is that of a wealthy globe-trotter named Lamont Cranston. (Gibson chose the name with care to suggest someone with society connections and named him for the financier Thomas Lamont and a Scottish theater owner, Baillie Cranston.) There is indeed a real Lamont Cranston, however, whose identity the Shadow merely assumes when appropriate. In “The Shadow Unmasks,” the master of darkness is revealed to have a basic identity of his own beneath the assumed one of Cranston. This basic identity is a famous explorer and aviator named Kent Allard. In each instance, the other identity is someone the public recognizes so well that it is not identified with the persona of the Shadow.

The proxy-hero is not always someone close to the Shadow. Sometimes he (or she) is the unwilling victim of the criminal’s schemes (like Paul Brent in “The Golden Master” or Marjorie Cragg in “Shiwan Khan Returns”) with whom the reader is asked to identify. Gibson’s plots resemble...

(The entire section is 1840 words.)