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Review: "Death's Harlequin" (The Shadow)
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John Olsen
2013-08-23 06:57:14 UTC
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DEATH'S HARLEQUIN was published in the May 1, 1939 issue of The Shadow
Magazine. Death's Harlequin - he twisted his murderous way through a
maze of international intrigue, to meet The Shadow at the end!

This is a good one. Yes, it has its flaws. But there's plenty of death
traps and underground lairs, and that always makes for a fun story.
There's a few loose ends, but those are pretty commonplace in the pulp
stories, and can be forgiven if they're not too blatant. The important
thing is, does it draw you in and want you to keep reading? The answer
is yes.

The identity of the sinister figure known as "Death's Harlequin" is a
mystery. He's a strange, costumed superspy who is working to cripple
America! What we know of this sinister figure is strange, to say the
least. He is only known by the name "Number One." He dresses in a
Harlequin's costume, a shapeless black satin smock with wide white
ruffles at the neck and huge white ornamental buttons. But his face...
his face is horrible. It's the face of a dead man; thin lips drawn away
from skull-like teeth, a pale yellow skin shining faintly with the sign
of decay. A living corpse in the costume of a Harlequin!

When this story was published, war was raging throughout Europe, even
though the U.S. wouldn't enter the war for over two more years. We had a
secretary of war. We had military secrets. And we had spies. Spies on
our side. Spies on their side. This, then, is the time of our story.

The story takes place in our nation's capital, Washington, D.C. We meet
Jane Purdy a mysterious, beautiful blond dressed in fur. We follow her
to the most fashionable beauty shop in Washington, where the proprietor
Madame Alyce escorts her to a hidden underground headquarters.

Yes, Jane Purdy is a spy for the powerful international organization run
by Number One. They are working to destroy America's ability to enter
the war; all this under the direction of a warlike foreign dictator. An
unnamed dictator, as directed under Street and Smith's policies. But we
are told Madame Alyce has narrow, Oriental eyes. It's not too much of a
stretch to figure out which country was meant.

Vic Marquette, ace agent of the US Secret Service, is now working for
the F.B.I and is on her trail, trying to follow her to the mysterious
leader of the spy-ring. But he has his hands full, as these spies are a
brutal and bloodthirsty bunch. They'll kill at the drop of a hat to
obtain their goals.

What are these spies after? Why, the secret plans, of course! What else
would spies be after? There are ALWAYS secret plans; you know that!
Secret plans of what? Aw, come on! Does it really matter? The important
thing is that the spies are after the secret plans and will go to any
lengths to get them. And The Shadow must stop them, free the innocent
blackmail victims from their evil grasp, and reveal the hidden identity
of the head of the spy ring. Whew! The Shadow's going to be one busy hero!

One annoying factor in these stories of espionage intrigue is the ease
with which secret plans are obtained by the bad guys. If we are to
believe that they are such vital top secrets, shouldn't we also believe
they would be more securely guarded? But, no. Often they are just in the
upstairs library safe at the home of some official. Boy, are they ever
careless by today's standards!

This story was written by Theodore Tinsley, not Walter Gibson. It was
his tenth Shadow story. In total, he wrote twenty seven of them,
starting in 1936 and ending in 1943. Generally, Tinsley was faithful to
Gibson's writing style. He is known, however, for a bit more sex and
violence than is Gibson. And in this story, that reputation is
well-deserved.

Tinsley's villain, the mysterious master-spy known as Number One, is a
true sadist. A shrill giggle from his thin lips shows that he enjoys the
torture and death. Perhaps it's due to his drug dependency. We are told
that he smokes hasheesh; can't go a day without it. He's depicted as a
real degenerate. Tinsley's graphic descriptions of sadistic torture and
murder exceed what Gibson ever did.

Theodore Tinsley's penchant for underground mazes, caverns and
headquarters is also clearly illustrated here. In Madame Alyce's beauty
establishment, there is a large swimming pool in the basement. But
hidden below the swimming pool, even further underground, is a secret
meeting room deep in the bowels of the earth. In a downtown garage, an
elevator goes down to the basement. Then a secret door leads further
downward to a deep cell in which prisoners are tortured. And out near
the marshy shore of Chesapeake Bay sits an old fisherman's hut. But deep
beneath the muddy foundations of the decaying fisherman's hut is the
amazing underground headquarters of Number One. These types of hidden
rooms are Theodore Tinsley's signature.

The cast of recurring characters is small, probably because the action
takes place entirely in Washington, D.C., instead of The Shadow's usual
stomping grounds of Manhattan. Harry Vincent is the only agent called in
to help out, although Burbank makes a very brief appearance by phone.
Vic Marquette represents the forces of law-and-order. And The Shadow
appears as Lamont Cranston when needed.

Finally, a few notes of interest. The hidden secret masterspy known as
Number One only employs women. Five women. When one is eliminated for
whatever reason, she is replaced with a new recruit. All five are
dressed identically in a white silk swimsuit, a rubber bathing cap and a
slitted white mask. None can identify any of the others, even when all
five meet together in the secret headquarters below Madame Alyce's
beauty establishment. I think the real reason for the swimsuit disguise
is to allow Tinsley to insert a little titillation into the story. Very
mild, to be sure, but certainly more than Gibson would have done.

And as for the identity of those other four female spies, not counting
Jane Purdy, we are never given that information. Seems strange to leave
that loose end dangling, but nothing is ever said about their identities
or their fates.

It's also interesting to note that secret messages are hidden beneath
the nail polish of the five women. In this way, they can be carried
without suspicion and safely delivered to their destinations. When the
silvery nail polish is dissolved, the coded messages remain on the
fingernails. Ah, pretty clever for those early low-technology days.

The sinister Number One carries a unique weapon. It looks like a
wide-muzzled tear-gas pistol. Instead of a bullet, it spits out a quick
puff of brownish vapor in a tiny dark cloud that surrounds its victim.
That vapor means instant death, as several find out in this story.

The voice of Number One is strange, as well. Sometimes he talks a soft
womanish tone. Other times, he talks in a harsh metallic tone. Evidently
Number One is a master of tone control. And it's a good thing, too, or
The Shadow would be able to identify his voice immediately!

When our story opens, The Shadow is in the process of beginning a
vacation. We hardly ever see The Shadow taking a vacation, even though
he works hard enough to surely need one. He's flying to Washington, D.C.
to arrange details for a pleasant vacation camping in the Rockies. It's
a vacation, unfortunately, that he never gets to take, because he's
swept into the intrigue as soon as he arrives in the capital.

A final note is regarding a strange metal in Number One's underground
lair. It's a queer shiny alloy that's used to panel the secret rooms and
jail cells. This unknown alloy of grayish steel has the unique property
of being able to disappear. At first it looks solid, then a dim rosy
glow appears and a portion of the wall seems to vanish. Doorways appear
from nowhere. Number One can spy on the prisoners in his jail cells.
Just what is this unique metal? We aren't told. But it certainly sounds
like a valuable war material, and I'd hope our war department
appropriated it by story's end, even though that wasn't specified.

So, for a great spy novel, with trap-doors, underground tunnels, hidden
rooms, secret headquarters and all the usual Shadow twists and turns,
this one is great fun. I really liked it!

John
--
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"
The wonderful old pulp mystery stories are all reviewed at:

http://home.comcast.net/~deshadow/
Chuck
2013-08-24 13:57:51 UTC
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Post by John Olsen
This story was written by Theodore Tinsley, not Walter Gibson. It was
his tenth Shadow story. In total, he wrote twenty seven of them,
starting in 1936 and ending in 1943. Generally, Tinsley was faithful to
Gibson's writing style. He is known, however, for a bit more sex and
violence than is Gibson. And in this story, that reputation is
well-deserved.
I don't think I ever remember you liking a Tinsley novel.

Thanks for the reviews.

Chuck
John Olsen
2013-08-24 16:05:35 UTC
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Post by Chuck
I don't think I ever remember you liking a Tinsley novel.
I generally find Tinsley's Shadow stories to be enjoyable. He gave them
a bit more of a pulp "edge".

It's the Bruce Elliott stories that I have trouble finding anything nice
to say about. They were just plain bad!

John
--
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"
The wonderful old pulp mystery stories are all reviewed at:

http://home.comcast.net/~deshadow/
Chuck
2013-08-25 12:30:05 UTC
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Post by John Olsen
Post by Chuck
I don't think I ever remember you liking a Tinsley novel.
I generally find Tinsley's Shadow stories to be enjoyable. He gave them
a bit more of a pulp "edge".
It's the Bruce Elliott stories that I have trouble finding anything nice
to say about. They were just plain bad!
John
Opps, forgot about him. Guess that says a lot.

Chuck

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