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The Shadow Pulp Magazine & Radio Series (1931-49)

by Bill Laidlaw

When “The Shadow” magazine debuted with the April 1931 issue, it turned the pulp magazine upside down. In the late 1800s, dime novels featuring Nick Carter and Frank Merriwell (both published by The Shadow’s publisher, Street & Smith), were very popular. But by the time WW1 started in 1914, Nick Carter had been gone for two years (Nick Carter Magazine was revived in 1933 after the success of The Shadow), other than occasional short stories in other magazines.

No pulp magazine in 1931 was still built around a single character, with a novel-length story in each issue featuring him – the publishing world considered that format to be dead as a doornail. Street & Smith’s business manager Henry Ralston had been with the company since the dime novel era, and evidently decided the time was right for a return of character-driven hero fiction magazines. Also, “Detective Story Hour” was becoming very popular on radio. This was the show in which a host known as The Shadow (actually a Broadway actor virtually unknown today) introduced dramatized radio versions of Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine. Ralston put S&S editor Frank Blackwell in charge of the project, who in turn hired newspaperman/stage magician/fiction writer Walter B. Gibson to create the character suggested by their unseen radio host, and write the stories. Gibson proved to be an excellent choice. Not only could he write in the pulp style, he could do so quickly.

By the time “The Living Shadow” (the first novel-length story) was published in the first issue, Gibson was already writing the third. He was asked if he could write enough novels so that S&S would have a year’s worth in advance, and he did. Then S&S changed its mind and decided to put out two Shadow Magazine issues per month (on the 1st and 15th) by late 1932. Some fans suspect it was their plan to go twice monthly all along. Gibson kept up with the pace, rarely using other writers for the run of 326 issues. He wrote a 60,000-word story every 14 days. A system developed in which Gibson, Ralston and editor John L. Nanovic plotted stories in a conference, then Gibson would write them from the outline.

In the second novel/story, The Shadow is identified as millionaire Lamont Cranston. But in the third, Gibson changed his mind and decided to keep The Shadow’s identity a mystery – now he was simply using the identity of millionaire Lamont Cranston while he was out of town. There would be other aliases over the years, but Lamont Cranston seemed to be Gibson’s favorite, and the radio series apparently based their Lamont Cranston entirely on the second novel - The Shadow was always Lamont on radio (both played by the same actor, though Orson Welles didn’t want to do the Shadow’s laugh so the original 1930 host did the intro & outro during Welles’ run).

While there were five regulars who helped The Shadow, he also had an ever-growing network of people he had helped at some point – Harry Vincent, former thug Cliff Marsland, investment broker Rutledge Mann, newsman Clyde Burke, and others. While the Law was represented by Police Commissioner Weston and Detective Joe Cardona in the pulps, I don’t recall a single radio episode that mentioned Cardona, though his character was represented in the movie (calling The Shadow about strange things going on at the museum).

In appearance, The Shadow resembled Sherlock Holmes, with an identical hawk-nosed profile and piercing eyes. On his hand was a single five-opal ring, and he gave similar rings to his network of agents in order to recognize each other should it be necessary. Gibson sometimes hinted that The Shadow was a WW1 spy or pilot, but never answered the question.
The first novel was set in Chinatown, and this became a favorite location in later stories (“Bones Of The Dragon” is one of my favorites). Agatha Christie so loved mysteries set in Chinatown, she set one of her Hercule Poirot stories in London’s (non-existent) Chinatown.

The Shadow magazine was such a success that publisher Henry Ralston also created a companion magazine the following year Doc Savage, The Man Of Bronze, written by Lester Dent. Though Walter B. Gibson and Lester Dent would write most of the novel-length stories for their respective magazines to the end (in the late 1940s), S&S used a fictional "house name" for the authors, in case the writers ever had to be replaced. Dent later also wrote a series of novellas for S&S's Crime Busters magazine known as The Gadget Man series (1937-40). Walter B. Gibson wrote 283 of the over 300 Shadow novel-length stories printed in The Shadow Magazine and other writers did an additional fifty Shadow stories as Maxwell Grant.

Unlike most of the Doc Savage stories, The Shadow was a vigilante who believed in fighting fire with fire. There were rarely enough live bad guys left for police to arrest at the end of a Shadow print novel, though I’m told by a fan that The Spider (another pulp magazine) left no live bad guys at all in his wake! Anyway for this purpose, The Shadow carried twin automatics, and used them in Gibson’s vividly told scenes. The The Shadow’s men were almost cardboard characters in comparison to the master.

Before and during WW2, both Doc Savage and The Shadow fought crime overseas as well as in the US. Though Gibson experimented with various plot ideas, to keep the magazine fresh, a writer named Theodore Tinsley was hired in 1936 to write four of each year’s 24 novels, also under the Maxwell Grant house name. Tinsley’s stories can generally be recognized by a sexy femme fatale and/or sadistic violence that readers weren’t used to seeing in Gibson’s stories. Tinsley’s first Shadow novel was “Partners Of Peril.” He wrote a total of 30 Shadow novels, but one (Satan’s Signature) was “such a taboo breaker that the firm felt compelled” to kill the story and run it in “Clues” (a B-movie of magazines put out by S&S in 1933 and 1935-43. S&S had acquired the title, along with Cowboy Stories and Astounding Stories, when Clayton Magazines went bankrupt). Of course The Shadow’s name and description were changed, and the story appeared in “Clues” in November 1941.

Also in 1936, perhaps inspired by their success in Doc Savage Magazine, The Shadow started tangling with super-villains. Unlike Doc, these super-villains sometimes popped up in more than one novel (John Sunlight, a terrorist finally cornered in Afghanistan, was the only super-villain to turn up in more than one Doc Savage story). The first was “The Voodoo Master,” who was a recurring villain 1936-38. Shiwan Khan, self-proclaimed descendant of Genghis Khan and a villain with powers equal to The Shadow’s, guest-starred in four novels and the recent movie. The Shadow also tangled with a villain named Benedict Stark in four novels – I suspect that at least one person in that story meeting was a Revolutionary War buff. And “The Wasp” was vanquished after two novels.

Both Doc Savage and The Shadow stories seemed less colorful during WW2. And in 1943, Gibson left S&S in a contract dispute (he wanted a raise). During this period he wrote scripts for the first season of a new radio series called “Nick Carter, Master Detective” (based on yet another S&S pulp magazine, one that predated Strand Magazine’s Sherlock Holmes by two months). Nick Carter stories occasionally appeared in The Shadow magazine, but I don’t think any of these were written by Gibson. The Shadow Magazine shrank to digest size, losing editor Nanovic and writer Tinsley as well. Bruce Elliott was the new writer and tossed out all of Gibson’s framework simply writing straight mysteries starring Lamont Cranston with little or no help from anyone or even as The Shadow.

While this was certainly more contemporary writing, readers complained and Gibson eventually returned in 1948 with “The Jade Dragon,” one of the best novels of the entire series. But the return to the old format was too late. In 1949, S&S cancelled most of their pulp magazines forever, including Doc Savage and The Shadow.

Though Doc Savage never returned to print with new stories (other than an unpublished pulp novel, “The Red Spider,” which was printed for the first time by Bantam Books as “In Hell, Madonna”), Gibson wrote one more Shadow novel in 1963, “The Return of The Shadow,” to kick off a new paperback novel series by Dennis Lynds. He also wrote two Shadow short stories for his fans: “Riddle Of The Rangoon Ruby” (The Shadow Scrapbook, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), and “Blackmail Bay” (The Duende History Of The Shadow Magazine, edited by Will Murray, Odyssey Pubs, 1980).

The information for the above article comes from various sources, including Will Murray’s chapter on The Shadow Magazine in “Mystery, Detective & Espionage Magazines” by Michael L. Cook (Greenwood Press, 1983)
“The Big Broadcast: 1920-1950” by Frank Buxton and Bill Owen
“TV, Movie & Video Guide” by Leonard Maltin
“The Pulps” edited by Tony Goodstone (1970, Bonanza Books div. of Crown Publishers, by arrangement with Random House)

Two of the original black & white Shadow movies are available on the Classic 50 Mystery Movie Pack on DVD Collection featuring over 70 Hours of Timeless Classic Mystery Films on 12 DVDs including:
* Dick Tracy Movies
* Sherlock Holmes Movies
* Nancy Drew, Reporter
* Orson Welles
* Frank Sinatra
* James Cagney
* Bulldog Drummond
* Bela Lugosi

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