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Harry Houdini, born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary in 1874 is probably one of the world's most recognisable names. An illusionist, a magician, a stunt performer, a pilot and most famously an escapologist with so many daring acts such as escaping from handcuffs, straitjackets, milk cans, crates tossed into the river, being buried alive and of course the infamous Chinese Water Torture Cell...was there nothing this man couldn't do? Why, he even dabbled with some acting and film producing before an uncomfortably thin profit margin put paid to that idea before turning his attentions towards debunking fake spiritualists and magicians. But what you probably didn't know is he was also a skilled amateur detective, adept at solving crimes along with his brother Dash (Theodore)...okay that last one isn't true, but it is the liberty that author Daniel Stashower has taken with Houdini's real life story in order to bring to us the first in his Harry Houdini Mysteries series: "The Dime Museum Murders".
The novel, set in New York in 1897, takes place during the period in Houdini's life before he had really hit the big time in America (which was credited to be in 1899 when his then soon to be manager Martin Beck got him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit concentrating solely on escapology) whilst he was struggling to scratch a living working in dime museums and sideshows and pleasingly stays true to the real timeline of his life as we find him married to Wilhelmina Beatrice "Bess" Rahner and trying to build his career alongside his brother Dash. The fascinating thing about this novel is it is actually told from the perspective of Dash almost 30 years after Harry's untimely death and comes about from the constant badgering from the American press for juicy details about the enigma that was Houdini. So, ignoring the fact that if Dash really did sit there and tell this previously untold story to the press it would probably have taken about 5 hours, all you can do is simply buckle yourself in and get ready for a fun ride.
Harry's specialised expertise are called upon rather unexpectedly one day by a Lieutenant Murray of the New York Police Department requiring assistance at the home of Branford Wintour, a rich businessman, who had been found murdered by a poisoned splinter to the neck in unexplainable circumstances that Jonathan Creek would be proud of, with all the doors and windows locked and the prime suspect a sinister looking miniature automaton idly sitting on the study desk. It turns out this automaton is in fact a highly valuable and much sought after antiquity from the lost collection of the French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Due to this connection the police focus on the antiquity dealer Joseph Graff who sold it to Wintour, who just also happens to be a close friend of Harry and Dash's, and as the police seem to be following the wrong trail Harry and Dash decide to do some sleuthing of their own. Can they uncover the real killer to free Graff and solve the mysterious circumstances of the murder, or will their meddling worsen the situation and endanger not just their own lives?
Historical mystery novels are usually a lot of fun, especially when real life figures of enormous stature such as the likes of Oscar Wilde, Sigmund Freud, Isaac Newton and now the great Harry Houdini are manipulated for the novelists own nefarious gain. Perhaps this is because we already feel like we know the characters through their legacies and the chance to humanise them in exciting ways makes them a whole lot more accessible. "The Dime Museum Murders" is in no way an exception to this trend and brings the character of Houdini to life in a fantastic way - Stashower's interpretation of Houdini could never be accused of being overly romanticised as he portrays him as a highly arrogant (despite having little finesse on stage), hot headed and often childish peacock oblivious to those around him with slight delusions of grandeur (although as time would tell perhaps he was not so delusional after all), and yet mixed with a keen intellect, bravery and audacious tenacity that makes him a thoroughly lovable if exasperating character.
Dash, our narrator, was portrayed as the far more level-headed of the brothers always in Harry's shadow, and in fact, despite Harry's belief that he himself was the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes to much comic effect, it was Dash that perhaps showed more of an aptitude for detective work, with Harry's technique being to decide each new suspect was obviously the murderer leaving something to be desired. Harry's wife Bess was a much underused character as she showed herself to be the loving, yet strong willed (nagging?) wife that wouldn't take any rubbish from either of the brothers. The story goes that in real life she was actually courting Dash first before marrying Harry so in some ways it could potentially have been intriguing if there had been a bit more tension in the trio's relationship dynamics but alas, it was not to be and there was very little domestic strife to be had. Also, the chosen period to set the story in meant that there was very little to learn about Harry's renowned escapology feats of magnificence so there was very little biographical information surrounding his career if that was something of particular interest, although his trick of getting the police to lock him up so he could escape from their jail cells did feature amusingly.
The style of writing is incredibly fluent and easy to read and full of fictitious insight into Harry given that it was from a first person perspective and from one his closest confidants to boot which help to fully characterise who Harry could have been. The story was also just bursting with descriptive prose to really give a feel for the era, especially of how the hustle and bustle of the world of magic and human curiosities must have been in those days, with a great evocation of how wondrous and thrilling the acts in the circuses and dime museums must have been for the general (and somewhat gullible) public back then with sword-swallowers, fire and glass eaters, Siamese twins, magicians, a decapitated head being kept alive, a giant spider-girl...say what? You also get a real feel for the style of 19th Century attire, transportation, furnishings, society values and classes plus the also dialogue felt plausibly late 1800s with a strangely formal and overly polite edge to it that you'd expect amongst the esteemed gentlemen of society.
Yet, despite the gist of the plot surrounding a horrible murder, this felt like quite a light story and for me would definitely be considered more a crime mystery than a thriller of any sort, as even though there were a few hairy moments dotted about there was nothing to particularly instil any real fear (especially since we already know the true story of our two main protagonists and the author didn't seem likely to go bananas and take too many liberties with historical facts). There was a fair bit of humour to be had by all, mostly surrounding Houdini's actions and ridiculous comments and his awkwardness and inability to connect on the same level (he was obviously higher) with most people he has dealings with and this was also mixed in with a bit of tragedy to make for a pretty well balanced story. So, despite slightly lacking in the thrills department with a fairly gentle, yet still engrossing pace, the mystery was still a good one (although perhaps not amazing as the killer wasn't that much of a surprise even though not that easy to guess) with lots of suspects and red herrings, a few twists and dead ends and a logistical puzzle surrounding the murder that you just wanted to solve by yourself.
All in all, I'd say if you enjoy a good mystery, especially one with a historical twist, you will enjoy this story. It's not so much about the thrills but bringing the characters and the period to life in a fun, mildly amusing and realistic way whilst paying homage to one of the best performers from years gone by to ever grace the world of magic and illusionism. The mystery, whilst puzzling, may not be the most devious, but it is the strong lead characters that dominate and it is their interactions between themselves and the other characters in the story that really make it work and this was a very plausible story with a satisfactory ending that tied up all the loose ends. So, now the characters are firmly established, the next mystery is waiting tantalisingly around the next corner and based upon this first offering, I for one will be seeking it out in the foreseeable future.