The Harry Houdini Mysteries: The Houdini Specter by Daniel Stashower
History is always a set of facts available for the modern author to manipulate in order to achieve the desired effect. In this case, the straight historical novel meets the murder mystery as Harry and Dash Houdini get caught up in the commission of a murder. For the record, it’s obvious from the outset that the ghost summoned during the séance by a famous medium was the murderer. Since all the people around the table were holding each other’s hands, the windows were barred and the only door into the room locked, no human could have done it.
I’m going to pause for a moment to admire the opening paragraph. As a contribution to the locked-room trope, this wins the prize for the most innovative. In the traditional detective novel, people have to break down the library door and enter to find the body battered to death with the candlestick. We then engage in the ritual of deciding how someone could commit the murder and leave the victim inside the locked room. That’s now completely passé. This is a murder committed in plain sight. Well that’s not strictly true. Obviously the lights were dim and people’s attention was rather distracted by the appearance of a ghost holding a knife. But the remarkable thing is that when there was light and everyone alive looked around the room, one of their number stubbornly refused to move because of the knife rather prominently sticking out of his back.
Let’s rewind again. This is the third of The Harry Houdini Mysteries: The Houdini Specter by Daniel Stashower (Titan Books, 2012). It’s set in the late spring of 1898, i.e. before the word Houdini entered the public’s consciousness as meaning a master showman and escape artist without equal. Indeed, one of the running jokes through the book is Harry’s bombastic confidence that he will one day be great. I suppose some self-confidence is always desirable to drive people to achieve greatness but this representation of the “great man” is less than flattering. His brother Dash (christened Theodore) comes out of it as the quietly thoughtful one who has the thankless task of smoothing the ruffled feathers his brother leaves behind. His wife Bess also has considerable common sense and the ability to command Harry to silence when he’s becoming too embarrassing.
Anyway Harry and Dash are two of the eight people around the table for the séance which narrows down the field of suspects somewhat. Not unnaturally, they are present to expose the medium assumed to be fraudulent. Except, for most of the book, neither Harry nor Dash have any reliable understanding of how the effect of the ghost was created nor how the murder was committed. One of Harry’s less flattering qualities as displayed here is his arrogant assumption that his every analysis must be the right answer without the need to quietly investigate. This leads to him making the most overly dramatic revelations only to find each analysis, while admirable in its own way, is not the right answer. I suppose his indefatigable confidence he will solve the crime is why he did eventually become great. He just doesn’t know when he’s beaten. Obviously, it’s Dash who leads the real investigation but, in the end, it’s a partnership solution and while the answer is not, “The butler did it!” the butler is pivotal in that there’s a place for everything and, if everything is not in its proper place, this offends the eye of professional butler who may be provoked to comment and reveal all.
As to one key element, all I will say is that I did spend a little time goggling when I finished reading. In all the best historical books, there’s always at least one element that presents a different or unexpected view of the past. As a result of reading this, I’ve recalibrated my general timeline of when people first did things or developed ideas. It doesn’t really matter whether this would have worked. I enjoyed the answer and find it adds to a general sense of fun about the entire exercise. The Houdini Specter may not be the most historically accurate book ever written, but it’s wonderfully entertaining and you can’t ask for more than that.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.