Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, September 18, 2020


 The Magigals Mystery by "Maxwell Grant" (Walter B. Gibson), 1949

Chicago may have been the town Billy sunday couldn't put down but can it stand up to The Shadow?

After reading a Shadow adventure for last week's Forgotten Book (The Freak Show Murders, which see), I decide to continue with a couple more.  The Magigals Mystery takes near the very end of The Shadow magazines run -- this one is from issue #323 (Winter 1949) and there would be only two additional issues before the pulp closed.  Talk about going pout on a high note.  This one is the best adventure of The Shadow that I have read, a story written with enthusiasm and love.  The reason?  The background is the world of magicians and magic, a world that encompasses the author's greatest interest.

Gibson was a professional magician and a magic junkie.  He was a friend, a co-author, and a ghostwriter for many of the most famous magicians of the Twentieth century -- Houdini, Thurston, Raymond, Blackstone, and Dunniger.  Gibson received a literary fellowship from the Academy of Magical Arts in 1971 and was inducted into the Magicians' Hall of Fame in 1976.  In 1979 he was awarded the Academy of Magical Arts' Masters Fellowship. 

Gibson became interested in magic when he was nine years old and had a solo magic act when he was in high school and lter when he was on college at Colgate.  While in college he began writing tricks for different magic magazines.  The year before he graduated, Gibson joined the Society of American Magicians; his membership cared (#586) was signed by then-president Harry Houdini, who later became a good friend.  The year after he graduated, Gibson published his first book, After Dinner Tricks; he would go on to write more than a hundred books on magic and related subjects.  The book led to a gig performing magic tricks on radio station WIP in Philadelphia -- something not as easy as it may sound.  In 1925, he opened a short-lived magic shop in Philly.  He toured with noted magicians and continued producing books, articles, and publicity about the world of magic and its practitioners.  He introduced the Chinese Linking Rings trick to America and created the well-known Nickles to Dimes trick.  He also began writing fiction.

Gibson was approached to create stories about a mysterious radio character known as The Shadow.  At the time The Shadow was used only to introduce episodes of The Detective Story Hour, tales based on stories that had appeared in the Street and Smith magazine.  Soon, people began asking for "that Shadow magazine" at newstands with such regularity that the publisher decided to create one.  Gibson's pen name came from the last names of two dealers in magical paraphernalia; the name Cranston -- soon to become The Shadow's best-known alter ego alter ego -- came from the name of a theater owner in Scotland, which Gibson had found while going through Houdini's notes.  Gibson had churned out the first four Shadow adventures when he was called by Thurston to go to Bermuda for three weeks to handle publicity for a tour -- the fifth Shadow adventure was written in whatever spare time Gibson could take away from those duties.

Gibson loved to include magic in his stories and he made sure that any escape trick or magical trick that The Shadow did was as authentic as possible.  Many professional tricks made their way into The Shadow saga.  In at least one case, a trick that Gibson had created (the Tire Trick) for one of his stories was adapted and used by Blackstone and became a cornerstone of his act -- a trick still performed by Blackstone, Jr.

So, what about The Magigals Mystery?  The "Magigals" were a loose-based national group of female magicians who decided to throw a convention in Chicago.  Underestimating their own popularity, over 500 Magigals showed up for the convention to find there weren't enough hotel rooms to hold them all.  The women decided to drive out the staid guests at the Hotel Harbison with magic pranks.  Collapsing skeletons, room lights magically going on and off at odd hours, floating electric light bulbs, an invasion of rabbits and doves in the corridors and elevators, and phone calls from quacking ducks were enough to do the trick, and as each guest left, a Magigal was their to take his room.  One guest who did not leave was Lamont Cranston, who had been foisted upon the Chicago police at the request of Cranston's friend, New York City Police Commissioner Weston.  Chicago had had eight suicides in the past three days, all committed in different ways, but all involving men from out of town -- unrelated, well-to-do, apparently healthy men with no discernable reason to take their own lives -- and all evidence pointed to these deaths being actual suicided.  The evening Cranston arrived, there was a ninth suicide.

The Chicago police were firmly convinced that all deaths were suicides.  There was no motive and no commonality between the victims...nothing that could point to murder.  Until Cranston discovered that each man was an amateur magician.

Back to the Magigals and the Hotel Harbison.  A shop in the store displayed a crystal skull.  Perfectly see-through and made of a hard substance, the skull had the ability to move itself back and forth.  Although their appeared no mechanical device attaching the jaw to the skull, the skull could count;  when one held fingers in front of its garnet-embedded eyes, the jaw would open and close, clicking the exact number of times as the fingers held before it.  The skull had been recently sold to an unnamed buyer and awaited delivery.  Many of the Magigals were fascinated by the skull until attention was diverted by a famous and very handsome Hollywood magician named John Halifax.  Soon, all the women were swooning over Halifax, who had come to speak at the convention.  All women save one:  Verity Joyce, whose attention remained steadfast on the crystal skull.

Later that day, The Shadow discovers that the skull had been stolen.  He also discovers that "Verity Joyce" does not exist -- she is really Gail Tyburn, the estranged wife of local  millionaire and bigwig Lester Tyburn.  Tyburn has allowed his wife to use his estate to hold a large charity event.  Although his estate is outside city limits, he wants Police Inspector Rick Smedley to provide extra protection.  The recent suicides had all been very public and Tyburn is afraid that someone will decide to off himself at the function and bring bad publicity to the charity.  Did I mention that Tyburn has not seen his wife for several days?

In the meantime, Cranston, an amateur magician himself, takes some time off to visit Chicago's Magicians' Round Table,  a regular gathering of professional and amateur magicians at a local restaurant -- a place for the men and women (but no women today; they're all at the Magigals convention) to talk about their trade and its lore.  Cranston is introduced to those present (many of them real-life personalities).  There is Chick Schoke, Dorny Dornfield, Monk Watson, Larry Acuri, Doc Tarbell. Milbourne Christopher, Theo "Okito" Bamberg, Al Plough (editor of The Linking Ring), Walt Gibson (who was editor of Conjurors) -- yeah, Gibson threw himself into the crowd, Bill Sachs (magic columnist for Billboard), Rufus Steele (an expert on gambling devices), Johnny Platt, and Dai Vernon.  John Mulholland, editor of Sphinx, was running late.  (Try to guess how many are real people and colleagues of Gibson.)  Cranston proceeded to woe these magicians with paraphernalia found amongst the suicide victims -- one of a kind items that were most likely created by the reclusive and "untraceable" magician Professor Sedley Marsh.

The so-called suicides, the eerie crystal skull, the Magigals, the non-existent Verity Joyce, the mysterious Professor, the Hollywood magician, a gang of ruthless killers, and magic, magic, magic!  How does this all come together?  That's for the Shadow to know and you to find out.

A truly fun outing.  Alongside the mystery, danger, and outrageous plot plot, you can almost feel Gibson'd joy as he typed out this adventure.

1 comment:

  1. About time for someone to do a pastiche: The Shadow meets Kolchak the Night Stalker!