The Shadow #279: The Freak Show Murders by "Maxwell Grant" (Walter B. Gibson) [The Shadow, May 1, 1944]
Sherlock Holmes once said, "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the basis of a pulp story about The Shadow." That may not be an exact quote.
This is a late season adventure of The Shadow; The Shadow magazine would close with issue #325 after limping along as a quarterly for its last four issues. No longer is The Shadow Kent Allard, the name used in the earlier Shadow novels; he has now adopted the name of Lamont Cranston, meshing with the radio series character. Cranston is a name borrowed from the real Cranston, who is travelling the world. Also merging with the radio series is the character of Margo Lane, the wealthy socialite who is the girlfriend/companion of The Shadow. As with the radio show, The Shadow is able to cloud men's minds, giving him the ability to move in shadows and to have the darkness follow him somehow.
The Freak Show Murders with Steve Kilroy, a representative of Associated Metallurgy, meeting with Milton Treft one night in Treft's manor home. Treft has the formula for alumite, a miraculous lightweight metal with superlative strength. The true inventor of alumite was Abner Pettigrew, now deceased. Before he died, Pettigrew used all of the metal he had created to make a dozen life-sized statues, each representing an hour on the clock. The statues, while appearing made with a hefty bronze, actually only weighed about twelve pounds apiece but were strong enough to withstand bullets. With the formula and the twelve statues, no one would be able to dispute the claim of ownership. The statues had been divvied up between Treft and his three co-investors. Before Steve could close the deal with Treft, a man in a harlequin costume appeared and shot Treft in the heart.
In the fight that ensued, Steve ended up with the assailant's gun, but the Harlequin manged to escape with the formula and the names of the co-investors. Before Kilroy could give chase, Treft's bodyguards had burst into the room and tackled Steve, believing he was the murderer. Steve managed to get away but was chased through the woods by the armed bodyguards. Coming across a railroad track, Steve jumped on a train carrying The Sorber Greater Shows, a travelling carnival. Steve hires on as a roughneck, hoping that the Harlequin, because of his costume, was a member of the carnival and that Steve would be able to identify him.
Enter The Shadow. As a shareholder in Associated Metallurgy, Cranston does not believe that Steve is the killer authorities make him out to be. There must be "an unknown factor in the case." Cranston also knew about the carnival travelling nearby and deducted that Steve was hiding out there. The Shadow enlists Margo Lane and off they go a-carnivaling.
The carnival, run by Pop Sorber, is having difficulties. Circumstances forced the carnival to forgo a profitable local stop and its advance man set up a number of other stops to make up for it. The new stops were very small communities and very much out of the normal circuit the carnival took. One main event of the carnival was its freak show, advertising ten -- count 'em, ten -- freaks. Sadly, Sober has only five freaks and hopes the rubes don't notice. Margo Lane shows up and is hired to portray two freaks -- the Spiderwoman and the mermaid. Steve is promoted from roughneck to portraying Atlas the Wild Man. Another roustabout is drafted to portray Nicco the Cigarette Fiend. Soon Sorber has his ten freaks, including a sword swallower. a snake queen, a knife thrower, a tattooed man, an electrical wizard, and Damon and Pythias, the Inseparable Twins (or Siamese twins). On of them must be the Harlequin. Why? Well, why not.
Steve joins up with Margo and The Shadow to find the Harlequin. The carnival's new route takes them to towns where the Treft's other co-investors live. In a drawn-out cavalcade of comic errors, The Shadow and the Harlequin battle, but luck is on the Harlequin's side and not The Shadow's. The cold-hearted villain leaves a trail of bodies behind him as he amasses the life size statues, but where can he hide the loot? And who is he? The answers are fairly obvious to the reader by some heavy-handed misdirection.
The plotting may be clunky but Gibson reliably provides fast-moving action and a realistic carnival,background -- the author had toured as a magician with a travelling carnival, so the language and the feel of the carnival are authentic.
The novel has been reprinted twice, once in a volume from Doubleday in 1978 and once in an omnibus volume (#149) from Sanctum Books earlier this year.
For Shadow fans, pulp hero fans, old farts like me, and anyone who wants to spend a quiet evening at home lost in a world some seven-and-a-half decades gone.