12 October 2021

A Shadow Moves Through a Shadowy Underworld




The Shadow
Arthur Stringer
New York: Century, 1913
302 pages

Time was when Jim Blake could pass unnoticed through the seedier side of New York. He'd hobnob with dips, yeggs, till-tappers, and red-lighters. Blake befriended ticket snips, queer shovers, hotel beats, bank sneaks, keister-crackers, dummy chuckers, sun gazers and schlaum workers. He studied their routines, their tricks, their hang-outs, their histories, and got to know the Tammany heelers, "the men with 'pull,' the lads who were to be 'pounded' and the lads who were to be let alone, the men in touch with the 'Senator,' and the gangs with the fall money always at hand."

All this was when he was a Secret Service man with the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. That job ended – rather he ended it – when the press began reporting on his exploits. Blake pretended that he wasn't encouraging the coverage, but his higher-ups at the Bureau were no dummies.

Good thing he'd made those connections at Tammany Hall.

Blake left the Secret Service to become Third Deputy Commissioner in the New York Police Department. His fame increased. There were newspaper features, magazine pieces, and even a Broadway play based on his exploits. Blake never forgot standing, in private box, to acknowledge the applause of an admiring audience.

But this is all backstory. Years have passed, times have changed.

The early pages of the The Shadow find our protagonist in decline. Not long after joining the NYPD, Blake was elevated to Second Deputy Commissioner, but there his career stalled. He'd known to throw in his lot with the Tammany crowd, but that was the extent of his political savvy. Younger members of the force have come to see Blake and his crude methods as relics from an earlier time. He's even been put down by a cop on the beat:
"You call yourself a gun! A gun! why, you’re only a park gun! That’s all you are, a broken-down bluff, an ornamental has-been, a park gun for kids to play ’round!"

The Cavalier, 21 September 1912
Stringer encourages the reader to share this impression with an opening scene in which an exhausted Blake summons a former lover, Elsie Verriner (a/k/a Chaddy Cravath; a/k/a Charlotte Carruthers). Years earlier, Blake had picked her up as an accomplice of con man and bank thief Connie Binhart. Elsie had pleaded that she'd change her ways. Blake had been taken in by her pretty eyes, protected her from the law, had fallen in love, and had gone so far as to propose. Elsie was reluctant, Blake pressed, and then she returned to Connie Binhart.

Never-Fail-Blake (New York: McKinlay, Stone & MacKenzie, [c. 1928])
Again, this was years ago, which is not to say that all is forgiven or forgotten. Blake comes down hard on Elsie, demanding that she tell him just where her old partner in crime has been hiding. The last seven months have seen Binhart chloroform a woman, shoot a bank detective, and make off with $180,000. The Commissioner is under pressure to capture the crook. When Copeland, the First Deputy, fails, Blake steps up, seeing the capture of Binhart as a means of reestablishing his old reputation. Under threat of arrest for an unrelated crime, Elsie hands over a letter Binhart has written from Montreal.

Blake makes for Montreal, only to learn that the crook has decamped for Winnipeg. At Winnipeg, he's told that Binhart is on his way to Calgary. No dummy, Blake realizes he's been set up for failure, most likely by Copeland. Because returning to New York would only add to his humiliation, Blake takes a train to Chicago, where he begins his own inquiries into Binhart's whereabouts. It's here that the chase really begins, taking the Second Deputy through the more seedier locales of the United States, Brazil, Central America, and the Far East. 

The Shadow follows The Wife Traders (1937) and The Devastator (1945) as the third Stringer read this year. I'm glad I gave it a go. While those disappointed, The Shadow proved entertaining, imaginative, exciting, and highly atmospheric. If nothing else, read Chapter XIII, set on a ship running guns to Ecuador. This is Stringer at the height of his talent.

Anyone with an interest in the criminal underworld and its slang will enjoy, though I do warn that racial epithets feature. I admired Stringer's disregard of convention. Blake's life will be saved by a sexy female assassin in Shanghai. Elsie will reappear – reformed – as an agent for the Treasury Department. Both disappear well before the happy ending.

No women feature.

Were you expecting a love story?

Trivia: The return address on Binhart's letter is 381 King Edward Avenue, Westmount. Part of the plant is that the letter was posted from Montreal's King Edward Hotel, not King Edward Avenue. Neither avenue nor hotel exist outside the pages of the novel.

Object: A bulky hardcover purchased earlier this year from the Princeton Antiques Bookshop. Price: US20.00 (w/ a further US$25.00 for shipping). Much as I'm happy to add it to my library, how is this right?

Access: There was a Bell & Cockburn edition, but I've never seen it. While I've yet to find evidence that the Century edition of The Shadow enjoyed a second printing, in terms of sales this novel looks to be one of Stringer's most successful. It first appeared in a shorter version in the pages of Cavalier (September 21 - October 12, 1912). Century's first American edition followed in January 1913. Nine years later, cheapo publisher A.L. Burt reissued the novel under the superior title Never-Fail Blake. It last appeared under that same title as part of a set of Stringer novels, "Supertales [sic] of Modern Mystery," published in the late 'twenties by McKinlay, Stone & MacKenzie.

As I write, two copies of the Century edition are being offered online. Neither is in wonderful condition, but they seem worth the $20 asking price. Copies of Never-Fail-Blake are best ignored. I don't imagine anyone is tempted by this:


The Shadow is held by Library and Archives Canada and is fairly common in our university libraries. Curiously, the Canadian War Museum, the Institut National de la recherche scientifique and École nationale d'administration publique also have copies. What's that about?

Public library users will find that only the Toronto Public Library serves.

The Shadow can be read online – gratis – through the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg. 

2 comments:

  1. The copy at Canadian War Museum is an ebook available freely online, and not a print copy.

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    1. Thank you, Anon, this is interesting. Typically, I've acknowledged only libraries that have a physical copy of a particular book (not microfiche, not ebook). In this case, WorldCat records that the Canadian War Museum has a physical copy, but the museum itself indicates an ebook (which in turn is taken from a poorly shot microfiche). Doesn't speak well for WorldCat.

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