Normally I try to make my reviews as unbiased as possible. Even so, every review is subjective because ultimately it’s merely my opinion. Just because I like a book, that’s no indication someone else will, and vice versa. I’m going to say up front that in this case, this review is not only extremely biased, I was dancing on air and doing the fanboy flail the moment I discovered it on Audible. This action may have elicited various responses of amusement and/or distress in my coworkers.
Ordinarily I don’t bother with animated GIFs. They’re obnoxious and distracting to those trying to read or write, especially if there’s not a smooth loop to the animation, thus giving the viewer mental whiplash every couple of seconds. But you know what? Everything has its place and time. This audiobook is cause to celebrate!
Pulp fiction of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s is an art form that you either love or you don’t. If you love it, it often has very little to do with the quality of the writing. Pulp writers were paid by the word count, encouraging them to churn out stories at a fast pace that could keep up with public consumption… at the price point the public could afford in the Depression. Everything a pulp is represents the cheap and dirty underbelly of everything respectable publishing stands for. The stories were usually the kind of dark and gritty tales that we’ve come to associate with the very term “pulp fiction,” back when terms like dark and gritty actually meant something.
And yet.. pulp fiction has a great tradition. In the Victorian age, you’d get the likes of Charles Dickens, publishing his works a chapter at a time in pulp magazines. Likewise with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his immortal creation Sherlock Holmes. But by the time you transplant the idea across the pond to the United States and push time forward a few decades, the idea of “great” literature is mostly out the window, regardless of how good the concept or story really is. People just didn’t make the connection, nor do they now. Every now and again you’d get an Edith Wharton reminding people that the medium didn’t define the quality, as magazines were an excellent way to showcase talent for a wider audience in an age when books couldn’t be afforded. But by and large, this is the format that gave us the likes of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Johnston McCulley’s Zorro, all of which have been reduced to the level of geek trivia, yet still provide endless inspiration for today’s writers. The stories were short, fast, often repetitive, and if you knew where to look, the authors were stealing either from themselves and from their fellow pulp writers. This was an almost completely liberal idea mill, where the writer’s consistency to create on a deadline was the only real value he brought to the table. The pulp milieu grew into something that was truly greater than the sum of its parts. Pop culture today wouldn’t be the same without it.
Back in the day, pen names were synonymous with the character. For example, Kenneth Robeson would be the credited author for all of the Doc Savage pulps, a pen name used by his creator Lester Dent (who practically created the pulp fiction formula), Walter B. Gibson, or others. Both The Shadow and Doc Savage were housed at Street & Smith Publications, and the pen names in play were considered house names, making the presumed writer of a given headline character as much of a character as the headliner. In the case of this story, Partners of Peril, the name Maxwell Grant belongs not to The Shadow’s creator, Walter B. Gibson, but to pulp fiction author Theodore Tinsley. Tinsley wrote 27 original stories for The Shadow in addition to his other work, which included the creation of Carrie Cashin, one of pulp’s first female detective characters.
Why tell you any of this? Because when you discover the evolution of pulps, the story behind the story lends a great deal of insight into how some of these characters inspired one another, and in some cases were directly ripped-off. A great many of these classic characters are virtual unknowns in today’s pop culture mill, which I consider to be a crime in itself, but their progeny are legion, and some will surprise you. Most of these characters weren’t created whole cloth, but rather evolved a little at a time, an element added in one story, another element added in another story, and so on. For example, Gibson was a stage magician before turning to pulp writing, and he imbued The Shadow with various abilities that would allow him to stay unseen and ahead of his prey. Those tricks would be explained, giving The Shadow a kind of credibility and air of mystery rarely seen in pulp magazines at that time. But since we know Gibson didn’t write this story, the question becomes: what is it that Tinsley brings to the table? That’s a loaded question. The answer is part of the reason I’m so excited about this audio release. Let’s dive in and really chew on what makes this book stand out.
The story is a standard pulp plot revolving around a series of murders. The victims are business partners in a chemical plant. The first seeks police protection from Commissioner Ralph Weston and Inspector Joe Cardona as the story opens, but as the bodies start dropping and accusations fly, The Shadow must unravel the plot and hunt down the true killer before more lives are claimed.
For those who know the mythos, The Shadow’s agents that appear in this story are his communications director Burbank, journalist Clyde Burke, and his primary agent recruited in the very first Shadow story, Harry Vincent.
Seems like nothing particularly special, right? The fact that it stands as an excellent introduction for new readers to discover The Shadow hardly seems like high level geekery. Let me double down on what this story truly represents to geeks like myself. You see, as cool as The Shadow is to begin with, this particular story was made infamous in retrospect.
Partners of Peril was released in The Shadow Magazine #113, November 1936. It was Tinsley’s first Shadow adventure, and it was also the first Shadow story not written by Gibson. That seems like an odd place to start, doesn’t it? The 113th story in a series, the first not penned by the creator of the character? Why not start at the beginning with The Living Shadow, wherein we are introduced to The Shadow, Harry Vincent, and so on? Because marketing is everything these days, my friend, and this story’s history is highly marketable. Remember I said earlier that when you know the story behind the story, this stuff just gets even better? If you’ve read previous entries on my blog, you already know where I’m going with this. But if you’re new to this or didn’t pay attention, hold on to your butt.
Partners of Peril was adapted a couple of years later by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane for the very first Batman story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” It appeared in Detective Comics #27, May 1939.
Credit where it’s due, Bill Finger never hid that fact either. He said as much in interviews, though it took some intrepid fans to finally track down which story he borrowed from. Kane, on the other hand… what a piece of work. Track down a silent film from 1926 called The Bat. You’ll get the idea. “Inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine” my ass…
If that weren’t enough, The Shadow pulps were eventually reprinted in a series the size of your average graphic novel, featuring two or three stories in each volume. Remember what I said about marketing? Check this out.
Partners of Peril was released in collection with Walter B. Gibson’s Lingo (1935), and Tinsley’s The Grim Joker (1936). Lingo was one of Gibson’s very best stories, featuring a gadget that would become Batman’s Batarang (created by Gardner Fox, first appearance: Detective Comics #31, September 1939). The Grim Joker featured a clown-based killer called — you guessed it — “The Joker.” The Joker would make his first appearance in Batman #1, Spring 1940, along with Catwoman (then known as “The Cat”) and Hugo Strange.
In the forward to the collected reprint, Joker creator Jerry Robinson says that he had no idea Tinsley’s story even existed. I’m inclined to believe him too. Let’s face it, the concept of an evil clown is not only ubiquitous, it’s pretty much law. It just has to be. As to the character’s look… we all know Bob Kane ripped off the Joker’s iconic visual from Conrad Veidt’s character Gwynplaine (who was not an evil clown) as featured in the 1928 silent film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs. Exhibit A, if you please…
So you see, it’s not so much that Batman was inspired by The Shadow. The Dark Knight is a direct knock-off. And to be fair, The Shadow has some seriously-borrowed common roots with Batman in Zorro, who in turn cribbed from The Scarlet Pimpernel, and you can trace that all the way back to Robin Hood. Batman and his entire supporting cast were liberally Frankensteined together from a wide variety of sources. It wasn’t until The Caped Crusader put away the guns and adopted his code to never take a life that he truly stood on his own and became the legend we know him to be today. And that legend would in turn go on to “inspire” another legion of knock-offs, such as the Green Arrow, who lifted his look straight from Robin Hood. The wheels go round and round, and sometimes they come back around.
[Just a bit of a geek call-out here because I can… in both the pulp cover art reprint and in this panel from Detective Comics #253… The Shadow should be wearing gloves. Seriously, people, this ranks right up there with Harry Dresden not liking hats and wearing one on every single book cover. Do artists not read?]
If you want to have some more fun, you can draw the same lines from Doc Savage to Superman, from The Man of Bronze to The Man of Steel. Some of them are just about as subtle too. Fortress of Solitude, anyone?
So now you know part of why I geeked out so much when I found this title on Audible. The other reason, of course, is simply because the original Shadow pulps made it to Audible at all. You see, until now, the only version of this character you could get on audio were the radio versions as the character “appeared” on the air from 1937 to 1954. These radio shows strip mined the original pulps, changed the character considerably, eliminated most of his agents, and… well, they’re a lot of fun and they made The Shadow a household name, but they’re not the source material for this incredible character. Never in a million years would I have imagined the original pulps would be translated like this. This audiobook is the first in a new series of full cast performances of the original pulp novels. I’m under no delusion that we’ll get all of the 300+ stories in this line, especially given how racially insensitive some of them are (“The Yellow Peril” was an oft-used theme, such as with The Shadow’s arch-foe, Shi-Wan Khan). But even so, I’ll take what I can get. Some Shadow is far better than no Shadow at all. And in a way, bringing these audios to life sort of brings things full circle if you think about it, in an indirect sort of way that The Shadow himself would approve.
To all those responsible in the realization of this geek’s dream come true, my most profound thanks because the only thing that’s better than reading about The Shadow is listening to his stories come to life. I’m kind of hardwired for that, being an old school radio geek. So gimme more. I need more. Now.