Review: Harry Houdini Mysteries – The Dime Museum Murders
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Hou-did-it? I'm not sure, but thankfully Harry's on the case...
I must confess, I have a love for all things magic, whether the intimacy of a close up card trick or the majesty of making the Statue of Liberty disappear, so when the opportunity arose to review The Dime Museum Murders, the first in a series of reprints of The Harry Houdini Mysteries (originally released back in 1999) starring one of the greatest magicians of all time, I jumped at the chance.
Written by Daniel Stashower, himself a magician and author of The Ectoplasmic Man, The Dime Museum Murders plucks twenty-three year old struggling escapologist Harry Houdini and his younger brother Theodore 'Dash' Hardeen from their lowly billing in the titular curiosity show and drops them into the middle of a murder investigation.
It seems that toy tycoon Branford Wintour has been murdered by a magic trick in the study of his Fifth Avenue mansion, which was also locked from the inside , and so Lieutenant Murray of the NYPD calls upon Houdini, who is known to New York's finest due to his repeated attempts to escape from one of their holding cells in preparation for a proposed escape from Sing Sing State Prison. In doing so, the NYPD hope to use his knowledge and expertise to explain how the dastardly deed occurred and how the villain got in and out of the crime scene.
If this all sounds a little Holmesian, then you'd be right. As his brother Dash explains, from whose point of view the adventure is written, Houdini dearly loves detective stories, and particularly those involving Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous sleuth. So much so, in fact, that not only does the elder Houdini often quote Holmes in the novel (and is frequently called on it by his brother), but was despondent for weeks after Doyle's story The Final Problem was published in Harper's Weekly, in which the master detective and his nemesis Professor James Moriarty apparently fell to their deaths at the Reichenbach Falls.
In fact the tone of The Dime Museum Murders is very reminiscent of Conan Doyle's style, due in no small part to the similar historical time frame and the use of Houdini's brother Dash as the sensible foil to the magician's eccentric genius - in much the same way as Watson so brilliantly complements Holmes - but there is more than enough of Stashower's own voice coming through to make it his own.
Speaking as somebody who is familiar with the life and times of Harry Houdini, it is clear that the author has done an enormous amount of research into the lives of the magician and the people around him who feature in the book, notably his brother Dash, his wife Bess and his mother Cecelia, each of whom he brings vividly to live with well rounded and believable personalities. This is particularly true of the relationship between the Brothers Houdini, which works very well indeed. Their verbal sparring and good humoured rivalry brings a sense of authenticity to the novel.
Dash, though two years younger than Houdini, is the one with his feet planted firmly in reality as he juggles his daily job of trying, usually in vain, to arrange bookings for his brother's act in an attempt to liberate him from his measly three minute slot at the dime museum, with their newly acquired status as amateur investigators. Harry, on the other hand, is already convinced that he is a world famous escapologist, but that the world just hasn't realised it yet, and is brash, arrogant and frequently frustrated with what he sees as everybody else's lack of intelligence and imagination.
There are, as you might expect, plenty of references to - and instances of - Houdini's sleight of hand and escapology skills, including one involving the magician interrogating a villain twelve stories above the ground, but they are written in such a manner that Stashower makes you feel as if you are in on their secrets without actually spelling them out for you.
The story itself is a well plotted and intelligent yarn, structured like an old fashioned serial with its myriad cliffhangers and revelations that take our heroes from the splendor of Fifth Avenue to the squalor of skid row and all points in between, keeping the reader eager to keep turning the pages as Harry and Dash unravel the mystery of the Dime Museum Murders.
On the strength of this first offering, an easy and pleasant read that was just long enough to deliver a satisfying complex tale without outstaying its welcome, I'm looking forward to sharing further adventures with the Brothers Houdini, the next of which - The Floating Lady Murders - has also just been released, and can see this series finding an appreciative audience among fans of Baker Street's most famous son.
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