Written by Daniel Stashower — The Dime Museum Murders is the first in a series of reprints from Titan Books. The Floating Lady Murder is published concurrently and The Houdini Specter will be available from June 2012.
Set in New York at the end of the 19th century, we meet Harry before his career has really taken off. He may refer to himself as The Great Houdini but success eludes him. The Dime Museum of the title refers to a downmarket theatre where Harry currently works, the audience paying a dime to enter. Each act is a mere three minutes, and not a second more, to entertain before they move to the next act. Harry works with his wife Bess (who also doubles as The Amazing Spider Girl) whilst his brother Dash acts as his agent, getting Harry auditions and placing favourable notices in the papers for the self-styled Great Escapologist.
Fired with ambition and supremely confidant, Harry has challenged the authorities that he can escape from the notorious Sing Sing Prison. In order to practice, and with the connivance of local police, he arranges for himself to be locked in jail every night to better his skills. When a famous toy tycoon is found murdered in his study in what appears to be a classic locked-room mystery, Harry and brother are asked to help. The method was death by a poison dart delivered by Le Fantome, a very valuable clockwork automata used in magic tricks, of brilliant design and thought to have been destroyed in a fire years before. When a family friend is framed for the murder, Harry resolves not just to solve the puzzle of the locked room but find the murderer himself.
The author is a noted Sherlockian having written a biography of Conan Doyle and a novel, The Ectoplasmic Man, in which Holmes and Houdini save the Prince of Wales. There are nods and winks throughout to Conan Doyle and Holmes. Here Dash plays the Watson role, chronicling his more talented brother’s investigative exploits, even explaining in the prologue why he has had to wait so long to publish his accounts. Harry quotes Holmes’ aphorisms on detection here and there, at one point even admonishing Dash that it’s a capital offence to theorise without the facts. The relationship is given a comic twist as whilst Houdini has courage and energy for two, Dash is the brains.
Period New York is described well. Stashower clearly knows a lot about Houdini and the history of stage magic. His descriptions of the tricks and techniques used by Harry are fun and informative without getting in the way of the story. The relationship of the brothers, and the difficulties of living in the shadow of a genius are particularly well done. I did find the thriller element a little disappointing. I never really got the sense that our heroes were in any great peril and as a result sometimes the dramatic tension flagged a little.
This book is not deep or meaningful. It doesn’t shine a spotlight on the injustices of society, but it is entertaining, and that is not a skill every author masters. I enjoyed it from start to finish, and if you are a fan of period thrillers or Sherlock Holmes I’m sure you will enjoy it too.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars