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.
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.
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.