Daniel Stashower,
The Harry Houdini Mysteries:
The Dime Museum Murders
& The Floating Lady Murder

(Titan, 2012)

These books, originally published in 2000 and brought back into print this year by Titan Books, present Harry Houdini as a detective, running about Victorian New York City solving crimes loudly and clumsily. You see, this isn't Houdini the master magician and escape artist; Daniel Stashower gives us Houdini the beginning artist who has not yet found his way, the man who is determined to become the greatest "escapologist" on earth -- even though the profession does not exist yet. The adventures are narrated by Houdini's adoring younger brother, Dash, who used to be Harry's stage partner but is now relegated to the job of his manager and agent since Houdini married Beth and brought her into the act. It's a Sherlock Holmes-Dr. Watson relationship, if Watson was intelligent and if he was frequently frustrated by the enormous ego and refusal to listen consistently demonstrated by the detective.

In The Dime Museum Murders, Houdini is working in a freak show -- an Oddities of Nature show, where he is given three minutes to perform, 10 times a day, in company with acts like Miss Missy the Armless Wonder and the Human Skye Terrier -- when he is summoned to the scene of a murder by the New York police. He thinks, of course, that they have called him in because of his enormous abilities to solve the crime, but actually they have a much smaller role in mind: the victim was apparently killed by a magic trick and they want Houdini to explain how the trick was done. Houdini is not about to accept this passive role and soon he and Dash are rushing about the city in search of a murderer.

Coincidently with the murder plot, Houdini is trying to perfect his escape from a locked cell in Sing Sing Prison, and at the end of the book we learn how that trick was done.

In The Floating Lady Murder, Houdini and Dash are working for Kellar, one of the leading magicians of the day. Kellar's show is being sabotaged, with lots of suspicious "accidents" happening. Kellar is preparing to do the Floating Lady illusion, but when he finally perfects the stunt and puts it into his act, it goes horribly wrong, with the lady plunging to her death. The death is complicated by the fact that she did not die from the fall but was instead drowned. Again, Harry and Dash have to solve the crime.

The Harry Houdini of these novels is a great fan of Sherlock Holmes -- in another book in the series, he teams up with Arthur Conan Doyle -- and his detective technique is based on his readings. He frequently quotes Holmes and identifies totally with the great British detective. He is, though, no Holmes. Rather than being rational and logical, he is impulsive, jumping to conclusions, so that he becomes determined that everyone they meet along the path of the investigations is the murderer. Dash, the Watson of the novels, is actually the calm, rational one and spends most of his time trying to bring his brother back to some semblance of reality.

These books are fun. The history and local color of early New York is accurate and well handled, the characters colorful, unique and well-developed, and the plots solid. Although the books are lighthearted and funny, the mysteries are solid and hold up well.

You'll enjoy spending time in Houdini's company.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

14 April 2012

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