Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Shadow: Gangdom's Doom

The Shadow cleans up Chicago in Gangdom's Doom, the fifth Shadow novella. 

Inspired by the April 1931 Chicago election, The Shadow takes on the crime empire of Nick Savoli, a thinly disguised stand-in for Al Capone. Gangland Chicago was a breeding ground for pulp stories, from Amusement, Inc. to Black Mask and a host of hero and detective pulps. But the editors thought that The Shadow needed a little more motivation to face their version of America's first celebrity gangster: The order came from on high to writer Walter Gibson: The Shadow's agent, Claude Fellows would die.

Fellows would be the first and only agent to fall in the pulps. And Gibson protested the decision. But the editors stood firm. The blow was softened as Gibson went to Bermuda, dividing his time between writing and running publicity for the magician Harry Blackstone. 

Gibson would later recount how he turned the noisy Bermuda streets, complete with the hammering riveting of construction, into scenes in side alleys of Chicago, complete with Tommy gun fire. "It gave me jitters to walk past the Bermuda building, but it helped the story."

Onto the story.

Claude Fellows has been assigned to investigate the Chicago mob. Soon after their talk, first, his contact, then Fellows himself are killed, with the latter falling in a Tommy gun drive by.

In response, The Shadow sends Harry Vincent to Chicago, where Harry works his way into the confidence of Marmosa, a gambling king. While Harry learns about the mob's organization, from kingpin Nick Savoli down to the hired killers, the same killers burst into the gambling den. The Chicago killers get into a firefight with New York thugs, including one Monk Thurman. They kill one of Marmosa’s guns before Monk Thurman drives them away. Suddenly, Thurman is of great interest to Marmosa--and to Savoli's organization. Should they hire him or kill him?

A familiar felonious face, Steve Cronin from New York, meets with Marmosa's henchmen and casts enough doubt on Thurman to convince Marmosa's goons to kill the New York gunman. But when they call a meeting with Thurman to kill him, no one shows. Confused, Cronin and Marmosa's henchman leave, unaware that, in secret, The Shadow is watching their every move.

Later, Cronin meets with mob boss Savoli, who tells him to murder Chicago's most aggressive district attorney. But before Cronin and his crew can pull the trigger on their Chicago typewriters, The Shadow appears behind them and knocks them out.

When Cronin wakes up, he crosses paths with Harry Vincent, who resolves to settle the score from earlier adventures between them. Soon after, Savoli gives Cronin a way to redeem himself from the night's failure:

Kill The Shadow.

Savoli then orders Monk Thurman to eliminate the Chicago killers who shot up Marmosa's gambling den. Monk goes out and antagonizes a set of toughs, tricking them into ambushing the killers instead of ambushing him. The toughs go into hiding. Monk Thurman claims the deed.

The killings spark a whirlwind of schemes as Savoli uses the opportunity to further cement his authority over the Chicago underworld. Monk Thurman is to be killed to appease another crime lord. That is unless he kills The Shadow first.

The Shadow is everywhere during this exchange, listening in from secret passages, cackling to himself under hidden disguises. Now he reveals himself. The Shadow interrupts a dinner between Savoli and his crime lords, defying the mob boss to his face. The Knight of Darkness pronounces judgment on Savoli for his crimes and twice over for the men who killed on his orders. The Shadow escapes, untouched a hail of bullets.

Enraged, Savoli spends days setting his murderers after The Shadow, including Monk Thurman. But they aren't the only ones watching the streets of Chicago. Harry Vincent is as well, and Cronin now suspects him to be working for The Shadow. Cronin takes his suspicions to Savoli, who hatches a plan.

Harry Vincent is captured and tortured, causing The Shadow to make his move. After rescuing his agent, The Shadow appears to be on a collision course with Monk Thurman. But Monk's efforts are seemingly spent more in fraying the fragile peace in Savoli's organization--accompanied by a familiar mocking laughter.

Savoli's empire collapses in a week of brutal gang fighting. But The Shadow is not done yet, for he still has to bring Claude Fellows' killer to justice. He distracts Savoli long enough for police to raid Savoli's hideout. In the fight, Cronin is killed, and Savoli is arrested.

Gibson does a lot to make his story easy to read. This doesn't mean simplified plots, flat prose, or childish vocabulary. Rather, he doesn't get lost in exposition or distraction and makes it so the plot can be easily followed without telegraphing future events. Additionally, Gibson has perhaps the cleanest chapter organization so far in pulpdom. Each chapter can be summarized in a sentence but tells a miniature story in its own right. Unlike the hero pulps that would follow, Gibson's prose is stylized but without all the gilt that imitators would tack onto the genre. And the tricks of the magician that Gibson was so fond of, especially misdirection, are prominent throughout the tale.

The Shadow truly owes a debt to Fantomas. Not just in the mastery of disguise, but the prose stylings are similar to those found in the French phantom villain's dime novel adventures.

Like in the Argosy stories, the villains' actions drive the story, not that of The Shadow or Harry Vincent. It's almost alien compared to these days of limited 3rd-person POV. Although in the shadows and cackles, the reader can sense The Shadow's schemes coiling around the mob occasionally striking through mistake identities and inciting mob on mob violence. It isn't like he's averse to using his automatics, but rumor had it that Street Smith did not want to ruffle the feathers of the mob by letting The Shadow cut loose.

So, did Claude Fellows need to die?

No. The Shadow already is an embodiment of vengeance, and, save for being the inciting action for The Shadow’s crusade, affected the story minimally. We never see into The Shadow’s thought, and he is such a mystery and an actor that we as the readers never get a clear glimpse into The Shadow’s thoughts and motivations. And for a series so dependent on mood and misdirection, there’s no need for such a glimpse to push the story forward. As such, Fellows’ death comes across as a cheap stunt at worst and a MacGuffin at best. Gibson was right to protest the editorial decree, but, as he was writing for hire, the decision was ultimately out of his hands.

But even with that compromise, The Shadow’s fame and sales continued to grow.

* * * * *

For all agents of the Shadow: Buy the Sanctum reprints while you still can. Sanctum's rights expire at the end of this year. Who knows what Conde Nast will do with the series, so this is the last chance for a while to get affordable copies of The Shadow.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Sheriff of Tonto Town

W. C. Tuttle's Henry Harrison Conroy is a lesser-known pulp character. A quick Google search finds pirate sites carrying his stories before any articles talking about him. Fortunately, there is a good intro to Sheriff Henry: 
"When we first meet Henry Harrison Conroy he's a down-at-the-heels vaudeville comedian who seems to be modeled on W.C. Fields...Just as he learns his stage career is over, he gets a letter saying he's inherited a ranch in Arizona. So to Arizona he goes."
"Along the way, Henry is elected sheriff as a joke, and turns the joke on the town by remaining in office. He knows nothing of the law, and cares less, but somehow - usually with a drink in his hand - manages to bring about some justice."
Sheriff Henry typically gets tied up in murder mysteries in Western towns, although later stories become more typically Western. In "The Sheriff of Tonto Town", "a dying man who has just discovered a rich Arizona mine" brings problems to Sheriff Henry's doorstep.

The first chapter has Sheriff Henry sorting out a card shark that stole property from a local. From his career on stage, Henry has seen more than a handful of magicians palm a card, and is wise to the card shark's game. 

Henry's vaudeville roots will play out throughout the story. Already, there's a sort of verbal and slapstick interrogation of the card shark, complete with a bit of "accidental gunfire". "Das har'ar gon," replied Oscar (the jailer working for Henry), "von't stay cocked." It's the first bit of deliberate humor I've read in the pulps. And Oscar also has the thickest, most cryptic dialect in pulp, a medium already given toward thick and cryptic dialects. Pulps typically err on the side of verisimilitude over readability. Here, it's a step into cryptographic analysis.

As for the Terrible Swede with the hair trigger and impenetrable accent, Henry says: "You underestimate Oscar. Oh, I am perfectly aware that he does everything wrong. But I have a system. I tell him to do something wrong, and he will invariably do it right."

Sheriff Henry soon finds himself embroiled in a Lost Dutchman Mine-style mystery, when a dying prospector tells of a rich strike before h passes on. Not only is the location unknown, so is the matter of who will inherit the claim.

Like Max Brand's Clovelly, much of the novel so far is taken up by the schemes of the characters around the main character, not Henry's actions. Here, Jake West and Doc Sargent scheme to take the dying man's claim, foil happy couples, and hide evidence that West is a wife beater. Henry foiled a plot or two--age and treachery are great equalizers--but the villains drive the plot. Henry spends most of the book offstage. It's almost an inversion of today's storytelling, where the hero drives the plot with his decisions and the villain is the backdrop.

Henry plays up the bumbling fat sheriff, but he, Judge, and the Terrible Swede play adroitly to interfere with their plans. Granted, it's slow reading, but that's to catch up on all the wordplay in the banter. There's no handholding here, even with the humor. Pratchett reads like Carrot Top by comparison. Henry doesn't stop and mug for the camera with his humor. There are no instances where the flow of the story breaks because "we told a joke, now laugh. Please laugh at how clever we are."
But that is part of the approach of the Argosy pulps and 1920s adventure fiction: there is no hand-holding. And if you aren't versed in Western tack and saddle or 17th-century swordplay, you better have a dictionary close at hand.

No hand-holding also carries over into the plot. 

The Argosy pulp writers accomplish more in 50,000 words than most writers at 120,000. And even those who write the books of endless pages. It isn't just that today's storytelling has been influenced by publishers preaching padding to meet price points--more than one author I know has remarked that publishers are in the lumber business, not the story business--storytelling and pacing have become decompressed. And with decompression comes indulgence. 

Those wanting adventure still won’t be disappointed. There have been murders, backstabbing, several one-punch KOs, claim jumping, poisonings, sackings, and buffoonery from a sheriff too old to find a saddle, much less ride in one. Henry even walks six miles barefoot with soles full of cactus spines. Ouch. Not something most Western heroes would do, but no less a feat of endurance than that of Conan or Stark. Of course, the latter two gentlemen would have avoided the cacti...

But then Henry is supposed to be the least likely sheriff possible. An old, fat, city slicker actor with a faster mouth than a gun. Despite this mismatch of character, the sincerity necessary for pulp adventure is never harmed. "The Sheriff of Tonto Town" is a cozy adventure, a bit more soap-opera-like than most pulps, far more humorous, too; but it doesn't skimp on adventure--or carefully crafted plots.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019


Most familiar as his pen name Max Brand, the poet and incredibly successful pulp writer Frederick Schiller Faust is best known for his Westerns and creating the character of Dr. Kildare. However, Faust also wrote for Argosy, filling its pages with tales of 1600s’ fencers, swashbucklers, and swordsmen. In Clovelly, he brings knowledge of the sword and of adventure to post-Civil War England.

Clovelly is a fencing master, having studied under more than a few masters and in more than a few national styles. One sees the same disdain for bullshido in Clovelly as in many MMA fighters. In Clovelly’s own words:

"I have heard these grave professors make a mystery out of fencing; but I have learned to laugh at them." And " for tricks, I hold them not worthy..."

Clovelly as a character exemplifies a strange point to the violence in pulp fiction. As sensationalistic as the pulps are held to be, there is a remarkable reluctance to killing as there is a glee for fisticuffs. In a speech, Clovelly savages the man who doesn't have a sure sword hand, for such a man who cannot deftly use his point to madden, distract, and incapacitate his opponent must be forced to fight to kill, as he has no other options.

Brand might start Clovelly’s adventure with an erudite description of stonework, but he quickly sends Clovelly into a duel with a bully. Clovelly wins, not through a flashy display of skill, but a simple trick. He flicks his swordpoint into the bully's sword wrist. Sure, it's skill, but it's a move every slightly experienced fencer does to beginners--and it's annoying as hell until you learn to deal with it. Not quite a master stroke, but also not something to stop the story to explain.

Rather, it's the thirty seconds of David easily parrying Goliath's blows that earns Clovelly the attention from his new benefactor Lord Teynham. He is to steal a locket from a rival, one that bears the picture of Cecily, an especially lovely and virtuous lady dear to Lord Teynham. Clovelly agrees as "an empty belly is an eloquent advocate to advise desperate deeds.”

Clovelly exploits a tradition among Cavalier bodyguards to hit the rival's coach unguarded, and teaches manners to the nobility. Wits, not force, are the key to his victory. Although the gains are as dust. The locket is of an apparently faithless girl, and when Teynham wishes to further spoil Cecily’s reputation for a thousand pounds’ profit, Clovelly returns his fee for the deed and soon finds himself hounded by his employer.

At this point, the reader is only a mere 20% into the novel, and there's been duels, crimes, betrayals, and a little bit of philosophy. Brand has already proven himself to be in the highest tiers of pulp adventure writers, and there's still 190 pages of twists to go.

Instead of hiding, Clovelly further entangles himself into the web of deceit among the nobility surrounding Cecily’s now tarnished reputation. Unfortunately, the lady herself has been meeting with rakes and rogues in secret, so Clovelly’s involvement is more in outrage of “that a lady was to be damned in order that Teynham might have a thousand pounds in his pocket."

40% in, and the second 20% is notable for the lack of Clovelly. The barons scheme, for Cecily has fallen in with cads and ranters. Their solution to preserve her virtue: Wed her to Clovelly. Clovelly agrees. Not for Cecily's sake--her reputation and therefore her worth in his eyes are ruined--but because his price will be a privateer's ship to plunder the same Spanish that tortured and killed his father. But before that, he must first kill or run off his rival--who Clovelly ends up saving in the midst of a duel instead.

At the 60% point, every time Clovelly appears to indulge in a bit of counterscheming of his own, he's revealed to be true to his purpose. In this case, after a bit of a con and another duel, he's to escort his rival to Cecily, where the pious man will explain how much plunder he earns from privateering.

20%, 40%, 60%. These are not accidental reference points. Clovelly is a novel designed for serials, akin to quarters of a Dent Master Plot, with a piece of the overall story that can stand independent of the rest, yet fits in a cohesive whole. In comparison, today's serials tend not to hold up as individual chapters. They do tend to make decent reads---only after all the parts of that particular literary Triforce are collected.

After his rival disgraces himself before Cecily, Clovelly marries her, an act of no joy for him because she is ruined. Both acts enrages her father. As the newlyweds flee from brigands and armsmen, Clovelly is starting to come to terms that Cecily might actually be of sterling repute. The assassins and swordfights eventually lead Clovelly to the man who casted aspersions about his wife. The result: the clearing of Cecily's name and warming of the marital bond (and bed) was certain from the start.

The end might have been certain, but the journey was breath-taking and full of twists, turns, and switchbacks. Brand both executes the standard tale of a besmirched woman well and does more in the pages allotted to him. It's amazing how much Brand squeezes in to a mere handful of chapters without causing whiplash. And the pacing is a marvel, too. Brand's not racing from event to event, but mixes relaxed dialogue scenes with tense action and twists. As for the prose, it is closer to Hammett than Gibson, with plenty of period vocabulary to learn. And as far as the history and culture go, it's sink or swim. As in many of the adventures of the time, the reader is expected to be familiar with the era.

Readers should reach for more of Brand's tales. Writers should analyze the structure and storytelling. Brand reels out revelations about his characters slowly, but never in a way that plays up surprise or contradicts the previous actions and motives.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Awaken Online: Ember

Ever since his wife died in an accident, elder programmer Finn Harris has been a sullen hermit. But when his daughter browbeats him into trying the new Awaken Online game, he finds himself in a new world, with new challenges, and the favor of an elemental god. What started as a simple quest to get his online passwords back from his well-meaning but mischievous daughter turned into a quest to win a brutal mages’ tournament and a kingdom. For Finn’s connection to Awaken Online runs deeper than he knows, and the elemental god’s quest reward is something he cannot ignore—the return of his wife.
Awaken Online: Ember, by Travis Bagwell, is the first in a side series to Awaken Online, a futuristic litRPG power fantasy that delves into the reasons why people pursue power. While the main series concerns itself more with evil—true evil, not edgy heroes in black or mustache-twirling villains—Ember instead examines curiosity, challenge, and obsession. This is a relief, as the main AO series is a little too good at giving agency to evil. Finn is driven by the need to tinker with and improve upon puzzles, and his puzzle is the linguistic key to Awaken Online’s magic system. And he needs to master it quickly, as he has been thrown into a meatgrinder of an Arena PvP tournament.
Finn is yet another retiree in a recent line of older, more mature, and more experienced litRPG and progression fantasy protagonists. Much of progression fantasy deals with min/maxing a set of existing rules into overwhelming advantages instead of relying on strength. While young power gamers have the drive, age and treachery have their benefits, too. A lifetime of experience offers the ability to perceive more opportunities as well as understand more ways to seize the moment than just force. However, moody widower moving heaven and earth to be reunited with his lost wife is starting to become cliché.
Bagwell manages the delicate balance between game system mechanics and story, minimizing the exposition needed to cover the myriad little progressions Finn makes as he levels up in-game. This allows more focus to be spent on the action in the duels and the various challenges that chivy Finn towards victory. That Finn will win is not in doubt—especially for those who have read the main series—but the journey is where the fun is.