Friday, November 03, 2017

Forgotten Books: Bells of Doom - Maxwell Grant (Walter B. Gibson)

I was in the mood to read a Shadow novel, so I picked up a reprint I have of “Bells of Doom”, the 74th entry in the long-running series, which was originally published in the March 15, 1935 issue of THE SHADOW. That’s a great pulpish title and promises lots of sinister goings-on.

This one starts on an ocean liner bound for New York from England. One of the passengers is Lamont Cranston. Who, as we all know, is really The Shadow . . . only The Shadow isn’t actually Cranston . . . No, that’s too complicated a story. Those of you who already know it, fine. Those who don’t, it’s not really important in the context of this novel. Let’s just say that Cranston sits in on a poker game with three other travelers, one of whom is a rich guy who’s gotten hold of a rajah’s valuable jewels and is afraid that crooks are after them. Well, of course they are, and when everybody is back in New York, the other two players in the poker game, young wastrel Milton Claverly and smooth crook Hatch Rosling, conspire to steal the jewels.

Wait a minute, you say. This is a jewel theft book? What about the bells? We’re getting to them, because after The Shadow foils the robbery, Milton Claverly (who has covered up his part in it) travels to the small town of Torburg, where he inherits his father’s estate, which includes a mansion, a creepy crypt, an equally creepy bell tower (there are the bells!), and four enemies who swindled Milton’s dad out of a fortune. Before you know it, those four swindlers are being knocked off one by one, and every time one of them is killed, bells peal out from the tower, which is locked up tight and no one can get in to ring them. So this novel is sort of a locked bell tower mystery.

The Shadow is around, and so is his agent Harry Vincent, and everybody seems to have a hidden agenda, and the murders continue, and honestly, the whole thing is a little on the bland side until a dizzying bunch of double-crosses and hidden identities and plotlines that appeared to be long since abandoned, and while I figured out some of it and had a hunch who the hidden mastermind was, author Walter B. Gibson had me fooled on some things. It all wraps up with a nice shoot-out in that crypt.

Gibson’s Shadow novels are notorious for their padding, and that seems a bit more obvious than usual in this one. But hey, the guy was writing two mystery novels a month, so I’m willing to cut him some slack on that. “Bells of Doom” also could have used a little more action (some of The Shadow’s epic gun battles with hordes of mobsters in other stories are great). This isn’t in the top rank of Shadow novels . . . but you know what, I got a lot of enjoyment out of it anyway. I’ve been reading The Shadow for more than 40 years, ever since Bantam started reprinting them in the Sixties, and then when I was in college I was a big fan of the Jove reprints with covers by Jim Steranko. So the series has quite a bit of nostalgic appeal for me, and there are some nice creepy scenes in this yarn. Probably not the one to start with if you’ve never read a Shadow novel, but I liked it.


Richard Krauss said...

Nice summary of what makes this character and this series so appealing. I usually revisit The Shadow once a year and there were so many novels it's always a new one to me!

Anonymous said...

I've read eight or ten Shadow novels down the years and have yet to hit one that really worked for me. The Shadow himself is fabulous, but often (at least in the books I've read) comes across as a supporting character in his own magazine, playing second fiddle to any number of pretty colorless underlings.

And the plots tend to ball up into tangled "Moe Shrevnitz was in disguise as the Shadow to intimidate Doctor Zarnon into activating the aether pump while the Shadow, in disguise as Rakim Singh, moved the hands on the grandfather clock so that Gats Garson would show up late at the grand gangsters gathering and miss out on his chance to bid on the aether pump so that it would fall into the hands of undercover G man Bryce Bodacious". I'd scratch my head and hope for an action sequence.

As I'm fond of almost all of the other hero pulps, this has always kind of troubled me. Have I had particularly bad luck in selecting Shadow novels?
Can anyone recommend some of the best ones?

John Hocking

James Reasoner said...

I've read maybe a fourth of the novels, tops, but I remember really enjoying THE BLACK HUSH, KINGS OF CRIME, and CRIME'S STRONGHOLD. All of them had some good action scenes.

Gats Garson is exactly the sort of name Gibson would have used.

George said...

Like you, I get in the mood for something pulpy sometimes. THE SHADOW series is uneven, but you've listed some of the best of the bunch. Hope to see you at the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio!

James Reasoner said...

Sad to say, I'm not at World Fantasy. Sitting in the office pounding away on the current manuscript instead.

Stephen Mertz said...

I'd have to side with John Hocking on The Shadow. Terrific concept but the writing just never sparked me from style to plot. I feel bad saying that since I treasure my Bantam edition of The Romanoff Jewels, personally inscribed to me by Mr. Gibson, but I'd still have to rate Norvell Page and Lester Dent as my favorite super hero pulp scribes.

James Reasoner said...

As much as I like The Shadow, I'd have to go with Dent and Page over Gibson, too. Dent has been one of my favorite writers since 1964 or thereabouts. (The first Bantam Doc Savage reprints, of course.)

Spike said...

Page is a pure pulp writer, breathless stories from start to finish. Dent's also been a favorite for decades, though when the reprints first came out I was on a ERB binge and didn't get to Dent until well after enjoying many Shadows. Gibson is a calmer writer, enjoyable but not what a define pulp as.