Walter Gibson is rightly associated with The Shadow, having written 282 novels featuring the character. But he also wrote 23 stories featuring the lesser-known “Norgil the Magician,” drawing upon his real-life knowledge of magic. Norgil debuted in the November 1937 issue of Crime Busters and continued to be published until 1940. These 23 stories are, for the most part, very hard to come by. In 1977, Mysterious Press issued two volumes collecting 16 of the tales — I can only assume there were plans for a third book that ended up never happening. The books themselves are beautiful things to behold — both feature Jim Steranko covers.
Having just finished the first volume and about to jump into the second, I feel the need to discuss the first book. It contains 8 stories, selected as a “best of” from the ’37-’40 period. The very first story is a little rough compared to the others — it’s easy to see that Gibson (writing under the Maxwell Grant byline) gets more comfortable as time goes on. Unlike The Shadow, Norgil doesn’t have a large supporting cast — in fact, the only character who appears in each tale alongside Norgil is his trusty stage assistant, Fritz. There is also a showgirl named Miriam who is in many stories but it’s really only in one of them that she has much to do or say — the rest of the time she’s basically background material.
The basic premise of each story (all of which are around 22 pages in this book) is this: the story opens with Norgil in some new city, performing a magic trick, which Gibson explains to us. Then he becomes involved in solving a murder/jewel theft/protection racket scheme. He usually manages to solve the mystery with the help of another magic trick, which Gibson again gives a full description of. Sometimes Fritz helps, sometimes not. My favorite plots involved Norgil attending a magicians’ convention (“Battle of Magic”) and one about a ring that people are being killed over (“Ring of Death”).
All the villains in this book are of the small-time variety: hoodlums, rich guys who are secretly bankrolling the mob, etc. There’s no true threat for Norgil, who handles all the cases with relative ease. In that sense, it reminds me of a perfect setup for a television series, a la Murder, She Wrote – our hero could travel each week, with one or two supporting cast members, solving crimes wherever he goes.
Norgil himself is suave and intelligent. There’s no signs of romance in his life but he’s a friendly sort who seemingly knows people in every town. He’s a master of disguise, good with his fists and a master illusionist.
Gibson’s trademark writing style is recognizable but the character certainly feels different from The Shadow. If you enjoy Gibson’s more famous creation, I think you’ll find enjoyment in this one, as well. My biggest complaint is that I kept hungering for Norgil to face a true master criminal, one that would push him to the limit. Despite all the gunfire and death traps in this book, I never really felt that Norgil was threatened.
The book is great fun and an interesting look at a forgotten character. I’m definitely looking forward to volume two and then trying to track down the stories that Mysterious Press never reprinted.
I give the book 4 out of 5 stars — if Norgil’s opposition had been greater, I would have given it a perfect score.