13 January 2020

That Old Black Magician



The Black Magician
R.T.M. Scott
New York: Triangle, 1938
244 pages

The Black Magician is the first Aurelius Smith novel, but it does not mark his debut. Earlier adventures appeared throughout the early 'twenties in the pages of AdventureThe Black MaskAction Stories, and other pulp magazines. Back then, Smith was an agent with the Criminal Intelligence Department of India. How he came to lose his position is covered in one of those adventures, though I can't say which one. Was it "The Emerald Coffin" (Detective Tales, April/May 1923)?

Just a guess.

Whenever it happened, whatever the cause, the Aurelius Smith of The Black Magician is no longer with the department. Now a private detective, he lives and works in a converted Manhattan garage with manservant and cook Langa Doonh, pretty stenographer Bernice Asterley, and a former Chicago street kid named Jimmie. Nothing is to be made of the living arrangements; Langa Doonh's space is by the kitchen, Bernice has two rooms to herself by the main door, and Aurelius and young Jimmie sleep on the second floor.

Again, make nothing of it.

Those unfamiliar with Aurelius Smith – Mr J.H. Scanton, for example – may be taken aback by his languid, seemingly indifferent demeanor. Scranton visits the former garage because he wants Smith to catch the man who stole his wife's necklace at the Hotel Magnifique:
"Necklace an investment?" queried Smith. "Will you suffer if you don't get it back?"
     "Certainly not!" retorted Scranton. "I could lose ten times as much and sleep well. I'm here because I never let anybody beat me and the police have failed."
At that, Smith declines the case, and Langa Doonh ushers an astonished Scranton to the door. A second prospective client, a man named Grayson, will offer something more mysterious and less self-serving, but before he can begin, Jimmie bursts into the room: "Gee! Mr. Smith! Dere's a swell guy croaked on de front steps wid a stovepipe lid!"

The dead man is, of course, Scranton, as depicted here with Smith on the cover of the July 1929 issue of Compete Detective Novel Magazine:


Searching for a pulse, Smith notices a faint pin-prick on the dead man's right thumb. Resting beside the body is a small, five-pointed silver star.

After the police arrive, Smith returns to Grayson, who shares his concerns for the wellbeing of the female employees working in his department store. In the space of two short months, one has committed suicide and another has been placed in a sanatorium. Then, just yesterday, Grayson's secretary suffered a breakdown after opening an envelope to find a small, five-pointed silver star!

Young Jimmie is sent out to trail anyone who looks to be searching the ground where Scranton had fallen. The payoff is nearly immediate, leading Smith to Jerome Cardan, a mystic who claims to be the reincarnation of sixteenth-century Italian polymath Girolamo Cardano. The charlatan – is he a charlatan? – has been using his skills as a mesmerist to manipulate Grayson's wife in order to get his hands on the family fortune.

But to what end?

When first identified as the villain, Cardan tells Smith that he wants a million dollars in order to "erect a suitable institute of knowledge in Europe." Later in the novel, the villain reveals that his goal is half of Grayson's wealth, which he will use to seize power in Russia. I didn't much care which was true; my interest had long wained as Smith came to rely less on deduction and more on derring-do.

What kept me reading to the end were trace elements of the author's life. For example, the detective makes several references to his involvement in the Great War, including a four-page account of an experience he'd had while serving with Canadian forces at Ypres. Scott himself fought at Ypres as a captain in the 21st Battalion. His exit from the war came in 1917 – the result of a shell concussion which left him with headaches and deafness in both ears.

(Interestingly, one of the mysteries of the novel is explained by Cardan's "supernormal hearing." He's able to trace Smith's movements about a room by focussing on the ticking of the detective's wristwatch.)

A regular contributor to Mystic Magazine, Scott's interest in what is referred to as the "superphysical" is reflected not only in Cardan but in Smith. The characters' initial meeting takes place in a room lined with centuries-old copies of Pistis Sophia, Iamblichus' Theurgia, and the works of Cornelius Tacitus. Discussions of Paracelsus, Madame Blavatsky will figure, and Smith will challenge Grayson over the department store owner's atheism.

The November 1930 issue of Mystic Magazine,
featuring two articles by Scott:
'Mysteries of India’s Magic' and
'Mystic Magazine Gets Exclusive Message
from A. Conan Doyle.'
The end couldn't come fast enough, yet I was left wondering whether Smith hadn't found employ with some other secret service. He's turned down Scranton's offer of $10,000 (the equivalent of $149,000 today), had spent money with abandon in chasing Cardan, and had taken no payment from Grayson. How was he able to support himself, never mind Bernice, Jimmie, and Langa Doonh?

Ah, but let's not focus on the material world.

Object: A cheap production consisting of scarlet cloth boards, yellowing paper stock, and a poorly printed dust jacket, my copy was purchased last year from a Toronto bookseller. Price: $10.00. The uncredited jacket illustration depicts an event that doesn't take place in the novel. Is that meant to be Bernice? Whoever it is, she looks cold.

Access: The Black Magician was first published in July 1925 by Dutton. As far as I've been able to determine, the months that followed saw a second Dutton printing and two more from A.L. Burt. A UK edition was published in 1926 by Heinemann. In July 1929, The Black Magician reappeared as one of four works in the aforementioned issue of Complete Detective Novel Magazine. Given that the issue is 144 pages in length, I think it safe to assume it is an abridged version. My 1938 Triangle edition marks its last appearance in the English language.

The novel has appeared in at least two translations: Auf der Spur des schwarzen magiers (Munich: Georg Müller, 1928) and Le magician noir (Paris: Librairie des Champs-Elysées, 1952).

Library and Archives Canada has a copy of the novel, as does the University of Alberta. C'est tout. It appears no Canadian library has either translation.

Not many copies are listed for sake online. At the time of this writing, at US$8.99, the least expensive was a Burt in "acceptable condition," lacking dust jacket. A Dutton copy caps up things off at US$30.09 (VG+, lacking dust jacket). My advice is to buy the cheapest.

As always, print on demand vultures are to be ignored.

6 comments:

  1. I read this ages ago and enjoyed the pulpy nature of the story. Yet even after reading your review I recall very little about it. I do remember, however, that I thought Scott was imaginative enough in his approach that I promptly started looking for all the Aurelius Smith books I could find. I was hoping that they would feature more occult and supernatural aspects. Scott's books were dirt cheap back then and I found copies of all of them in a little over a year. I'd like to fill in the details on Smith's former life as a CID man and what led to his becoming a private eye but I never read any of the other novels I acquired. I think maybe I tackled some of the tales in the two short story collections but once again recall nothing about them. We've heard that tale before, right? The last Smith crime novel, Murder Stalks the Mayor (1936), was for a while available from nearly every bookseller online. Was it a massive seller? Or was it remaindered? I just checked to see if it is still as ubiquitous as it was 20 years ago. Only eight copies out there now. Hmm...

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    1. If anyone had read this novel I thought it would be you, John. What Scott lacked in style - he's closer to Thomas P. Kelley than Frank L. Packard - he made up for in imagination. Yet that imagination doesn't extend into his handling of the occult. I've read more than enough pulps about secret societies and imagined mystics, but in The Black Magician those societies and mystics actually existed. In these areas, Scott really knows is stuff.

      Something I cut from the post is mention of Scott's son and namesake. You probably know he followed his father into the pulps and edited something called True Mystic Science. Like his father, he served in and survived a World War, but died in an accident just days after the surrender of the Japanese. An only child, I found it particularly tragic.

      Perhaps I should pick up a copy of Murder Stalks the Mayor.

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  2. I actually did not know about his son until yesterday. Prior to reading your reply above I looked up the info on both Scotts at Thrilling Detective website. Also, turns out I was wrong about the final Smith novel. It was not Murder Stalks the Mayor. The Aurelius Smith saga continues all the way to 1947. The true final book is called The Nameless Ones and is one of the Smith books that once again deals with the occult. I'll have to dig out some of those and write them up over on my blog later this year.

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    1. There were two reasons I decided not to mention R.T.M. Scott, fis, the first being that the post was already a bit long. The second was the confusion over who wrote what for True Mystic Science. Did the father write "Is Roosevelt Psychic?" or was it the son? Either way, it's an article I'd love to read.

      I'm looking forward to your Aurelius Smith posts!

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  3. I was just reading about Secret Service Smith in the Ron Goulart history of Pulp Fiction, the day you posted this. Maybe I'll finish the Grey Seal books before jumping onboard.

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    1. Packard is the better writer, and Jimmie Dale is the more interesting character, but I found myself liking Scott's Secret Service Smith just as much. A vein of humour runs throughout - something lacking with the Grey Seal - and then there are the mystical elements. More lighthearted, and certainly more quirky, I'm hoping to happen upon more Scott novels.

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