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Nevermore by William Hjortsberg

William Hjortsberg: now there’s a name to conjure with. Even David Copperfield has finally abandoned abracadabra and shazam. When top magicians walk on stage, waving their arms impressively over their assistant’s hypnotised body, intoning Hjortsberg as the pendulum begins to swing would always get an audience expecting some heavy duty magic — assuming you knew how to pronounce it, of course. Checking back in my records, yes I am that obsessive, I see I read Gray Matters when it first came out but, honestly, I’ve no recollection of it. That’s neither good nor bad. In my defence, I’ve read thousands of books and can’t possibly remember all of them. Alternatively, it must be Alzheimer’s. So Nevermore (first published in 1994 and now reissued as an e-book by Open Road Media) is one of the most appropriate books for someone like me to read. Although I’m not quite old enough to have been around when the action is set, I misspent most of my youth demolishing American fiction, both pulp and mainstream from this era.

William Hjortsberg is playing the same type of game as Peter Lovesey in Keystone which examines what Fatty Arbuckle might have done in the real-world film studios of 1916. William Hjortsberg has Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle investigate murders committed in the style of Edgar Allan Poe in the New York of 1923. Better still, it’s written in a pitch-perfect prose style of the day which makes it great fun to read. William Hjortsberg is blessed with a sure ear and is obviously enjoying himself with the more pulpy vocabulary and syntax of the 1920s. Ironically, in the cast of characters, we meet Damon Runyon whose style is adjacent to this. Given the chance, he could have written much of this book — with a little prompting from our William to introduce the more supernatural and macabre elements.

William Hjortsberg looking out of the past thanks to Janie Camp

Before looking at the plot, we must celebrate the appearance of Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle as investigators. This use of real people is growing more common as historical fiction is popularised through mashups and steampunk. Today, all manner of real and fictional characters parade through the pages of novels for our entertainment. Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, appears alongside Oscar Wilde in the mystery series by Giles Brandreth and in one of the Murdoch Mysteries based on the characters created by Maureen Jennings, as well as having his own short television series called Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes. The nice thing about this book is that, historically, we see the relationship between Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini portrayed with some degree of accuracy. It starts us off at the fragile stage before the rather public “falling out”. As an irrelevant note, I see I’ve almost managed to publish this review on Houdini’s birthday — such is the spooky power of coincidence pretending to be a supernatural event.

So into action with spirits, ghosts, mediums and Halloween to the fore. As befits anyone who so fervently believes in spiritualism, Arthur Conan Doyle is visited by Edgar Allan Poe except it’s presented as real-time conversations, Poe characterising Doyle as “. . .a traveler from the future. . .” or a ghost emitting a spectral light. Harry Houdini gets to talk with his mother and engage in a little extramarital excitement. For once, both our heroes are on the same page (pun intended) on the reality of spiritual experiences, although not on whether the spirits are real. As the master of illusion should know, not everything you experience is real. So there are a series of deaths that recreate some of the scenes from Poe’s short stories. Arthur Conan Doyle’s initial impression is that these are random, probably the work of a madman. He opines it will be impossible to track down the killer. Except Harry Houdini slowly comes to see a link between the victims and, when he shares it with Arthur Conan Doyle, they conclude everyone in Harry Houdini’s circle may be at risk. The problem, as always in these situations, is how to guard against the unknown attacker.

Put all this together and what do we have? It’s probably fair to classify this as a pure mystery. For all there are possible supernatural elements and some references to Poe’s work suggesting a veneer of horror, Nevermore is actually a wonderful piece of literary flim-flam which, for these purposes, I will define as wit skating over the thin ice of parody and emerging with a triple lutz (one of those miraculous jumps Olympic skaters make look effortless). I was hooked from the first page and found myself irresistibly propelled to the end. Based on this, I should go back and reread Gray Matters to see what I’ve forgotten. Fortunately, this is now possible, courtesy of Open Road Media which, in addition to Nevermore, is republishing Gray Matters, Falling Angel and Symbiography as e-books. Yet more spooky coincidences.

A copy of this e-book was sent to me for review.

  1. March 18, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    Reblogged this on Espacio de MANON.

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