Harry Houdini – master escapologist, somewhat mediocre magician and now detective? While working at a dime museum in order to make ends meet, Houdini and his brother, Dash Hardeen, are called upon to give their expertise in a tricky matter – locked inside his study, Bradford Wintour has been shot with a poisoned dart – a dart fired by Le Fantome, a small statue created by the great magician Robert-Houdin. Two problems – how did the statue shoot so accurately and, more importantly, how did it shoot a splinter in the first place, given that all it is designed to do is spray ink from its blowpipe.
Luckily, Houdini has been reading the works of Conan Doyle recently, so clearly he’s perfectly prepared to investigate. After all, if a couple of cowboys can follow in the great sleuth’s footsteps, surely the great escapologist can do the same…
I spotted an intriguing review of this in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – “a locked room… well managed with clues and surprises” – and, coupled with my interest in the golden age of magic, this seemed ideal for the penultimate entry in my New Author August idea. But is it a little piece of magic, or has the rabbit escaped from the hat?
About 80% magic, I’d say. It’s a great read, narrated by Houdini’s brother, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it doesn’t gloss over the fact that Houdini was, to be honest, a bit of an arse. Very arrogant and single-minded, he may have read Conan Doyle, but he’s no Sherlock Holmes, bouncing his suspicions from one person to another – at any given time, he is certain that the last person he met must be the guilty party. Luckily his brother is a little more able in the sleuthing deaprtment…
The plot trundles along nicely – I was particularly impressed by the sensible way that Houdini is introduced into and stays in the investigation, and there is a shocking development about halfway through that makes things very personal. The author clearly knows his stuff about the era, and the magic industry in particular, and there’s some fascinating stuff here.
But all good things must come to an end… and here, I’m afraid, the author undoes a lot of his good work so far. The locked room solution is disappointing – I would use another word, but that would spoil things. More of a disappointment, though, is the motive which, while sort of hinted at, does seem to come out of nowhere and is rather unbelievable.
But for the most part, this is a great read, and I’ll certainly be returning to the (short) series – hopefully next time, the mystery will match the rest of the story.