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By Daniel Stashower

Avon, 1999

Reviewed by J. Ashley (6/2000)

I picked up this book skeptically, weary of mysteries featuring biographical figures, but Stashower's delightful story and lively prose captivated me almost right away.

Harry Houdini, just twenty-three and still unknown, performs, with the assistance of his wife and brother, Dash, in a "dime museum," a side-show-like attraction where patrons are led past various acts for a dime. Harry, a brilliant magician with a dull delivery, threatens to bore the customers away.

When he receives a telegram from the police requesting his assistance at the scene of a murder, Harry is certain that at last his talents for observation will be allowed to shine.

The police, however, are only interested in his familiarity with automatons, since a small one seems to have murdered a wealthy investor in toys. Harry proves that the automaton could not have been the murder weapon, then an old friend, arrested for the murder, is himself found dead. Harry and Dash hurl themselves into the investigation, using Harry's familiarity with lock-picking, escape artistry, and magic tricks to assist them. The two resourceful young men face both underworld criminals and the upper crust as they scour late-nineteenth-century New York City in search of the murderer.

This fairly straightforward story is told from the point of view of Dash, Harry's younger brother and assistant. Harry, not yet famous, is both arrogant and humble, self-confident and uncertain. His knowledge of magicians' tricks plausibly fits with the story line, making this mystery fun and believable.

Houdini's tricks aren't given away, but the reader gets a sense of a man determined to be the greatest in his field through hard work and seized opportunities. In the end, Dash proves the better investigator, but Harry's assistance always saves the day.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book, but veteran writer Stashower has won numerous awards, so it is not so surprising that the book is well done. A good, lighthearted mystery that is pure entertainment. Highly recommended.

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