There’s a real paradox about 'The Shadow', especially in the first few years of his pulp adventures. Even in these early novels - which, as any fan will tell you, are the better ones - the stories tend to be clunky and old-fashioned, with lots of cardboard characters and stiff, unrealistic dialogue. Walter B. Gibson, who wrote the 1931 debut novel and most of the rest, can really pad things out and his editors seem not to have tightened up his manuscripts very much.
And yet… the Shadow books are tremendous, because the Shadow himself is possibly the single most compelling character in the entire 125-year history of pulp fiction. Part-detective, part-vigilante, he’s an incredibly secretive figure obsessed with bringing down the most ambitious criminals in the country.
Gibson’s limitations vanish whenever he’s describing the Shadow, or anything he’s doing. These passages are beautifully written, and richly evocative of mystery and eeriness. Except when in disguise, the Shadow operates at night or in dim, gloomy places. He doesn’t walk, he glides silently. He doesn’t shout, he speaks in a commanding husky whisper. He doesn’t hide, he simply melts into the shadows. He comes and goes like a ghost, and if he’s after you, you’d better believe he’ll find you…and you won’t know it until you hear the low chuckle of the dark figure standing behind you.
All of this begins to unravel about 1937, after the overworked Gibson had pounded out upwards of twenty novels a year for several years, and a lot of the Shadow’s mystery and menace starts slipping away. But it’s hard to overstate how captivating the Shadow is in his prime. Take “Six Men of Evil” for instance. It’s the 24th novel in the series, published in 1933, and while he’s hardly more than a spooky supporting character in the very earliest stories, by now he’s taken center stage. The plot is kind of quirky, kind of silly. The action sequences are quite good this time around, and upwards of a dozen crooks will get blasted by the Shadow’s twin automatics before it’s all over. As usual, there’s something very unique about the gang that he’s stalking, and he’ll have to travel all the way to a remote corner of Mexico to uncover its secret. The hunt ultimately leads him to San Francisco, where we’ll get a showdown in Chinatown and a memorable finale. The book’s greatest appeal, though, are in all the passages that show how the Shadow operates, and how he confronts the bad guys. There’s also a great interlude in which he appears in the guise of “Lamont Cranston”, one of the personas he adopts when he needs to work openly in broad daylight.
As Shadow novels go, “Six Men of Evil” has its shortcomings but is more than strong enough to hold the reader’s interest. Forget the narrative, though. The main attraction here is the Shadow himself, the most fascinating, most dynamic character to ever haunt the pages of pulp fiction.