I've now read twelve of the first sixteen original pulp novels starring The Shadow. These novels, published by Street and Smith on a monthly basis, were originally published in 1931-1932. America was in the grip of the Great Depression and readers needed an escape from the grim reality of every day life, an escape that they found within the pages of these fast paced mystery novels.
In these early adventures, The Shadow is an extremely mysterious figure. No background is given, no motivation behind his war on crime, no secret identity, nothing. We know he exists and that he possesses a keen intellect and an unstoppable drive to smash crime but that's about it. Oh, he does have several agents who work for him and do his bidding without question. There are coded messages, letters written in disappearing ink, seemingly inescapable death-traps and lots of action. The Shadow, unlike Doc Savage (my other favorite pulp hero) has no qualms about taking the life of criminal scum and his twin .45 automatics regularly spit both flame and death.
Look not for Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane and "the power to cloud men's minds" in these novels. That stuff is from the radio program and hasn't been introduced in any of the novels I've read so far. To this point in the series, almost all of the action takes place in New York City (with one novel set in Chicago). The Shadow has his hands full on a local level fighting gangsters, arch-fiends and assorted killers and these early yarns lack the epic scale of globe trotting adventure, outrageous devices and super-villains that are to be found in the Doc Savage stories. At least, so far. As the series progresses, I'm sure the canvas on which the Shadow operated did indeed broaden in scope.
What have I read? Here's the list of titles: THE LIVING SHADOW, EYES OF THE SHADOW, THE SHADOW LAUGHS!, THE DEATH TOWER, THE GHOST MAKERS, HIDDEN DEATH and GANGDOM'S DOOM. These were all reprinted by Bantam Books in the late '60s/early '70s. Bantam had a great deal of success with the Doc Savage series which reprinted the Man of Bronze's pulp novels in paperback format and the publisher was hoping that lightning would strike twice with the Shadow series. Unfortunately, Bantam only published these seven titles before the reprint rights were purchased by the long-since defunct Pyramid Books.
The Pyramid titles I've read are: THE BLACK MASTER, MOBSMEN ON THE SPOT, HANDS IN THE DARK, DOUBLE Z and THE CRIME CULT. I have several more Pyramid titles to go and I'm sure I'll enjoy them all. One of the key design elements that makes these old paperbacks so visually appealing are the terrific covers by Marvel Comics artist extraordinaire Jim Steranko. Steranko made NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. the best spy comic book series of the 1960s and he works his magic on these Shadow covers.
Oh, and when I say I've read all of these novels, I mean I've really read them, as in "reading aloud." I read a book aloud every night to my beloved wife Judy (aka Angel Harvey) while she prepares our dinner. When we've finished eating, I clean up the kitchen. That's our sharing of chores. She cooks, I read and clean up. We've done this for years and we've enjoyed many, many books this way, including all of the Shadow novels. You haven't lived until you've heard me do my Shadow "laugh", which I get to do aloud at least once in every one of these fun, quick reads.
Unfortunately, all of the above titles are long out-of-print, so if you're looking to read any of these Shadow thrillers, you'll need to hunt them down as used books. But they're worth the effort. Check them out and see if you don't agree that "the weed of crime bears bitter fruit."