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DANIEL STASHOWER. The Dime Museum Murders (1999).

29 Nov

“Need Houdini Urgent Home Branford Wintour Stop Murder Investigation Stop Lt. Murray.” The year is 1897, and when the Great Houdini receives that brisk summons, his period of actual greatness lies far in the distance. Meanwhile, he struggles to hold himself in place on the slippery lower rungs of the entertainment-industry ladder. The note finds Houdini at Huber’s Dime Museum, a low-rent vaudeville outfit near New York’s Union Square, and it sends him thence to the Fifth Avenue mansion of a slain toy magnate. The police want him to provide some insight into an antique magician’s toy that apparently served as the murder weapon. DimeMuseum.jpgBut Houdini insists on offering more than a sampling of his technical knowledge. With his brother Dash Hardeen acting as his Watson (and a shrewd, resourceful Watson at that), the 23-year-old “escapologist” casts himself as a Sherlock Holmes in the flesh, and he sets out to unmask the murderer—much as the real Houdini would later unmask spiritual mediums and other charlatans.

The ensuing tale offers great fun in the form of suavely executed melodrama. Stashower writes with a sure hand and with plenty of wit. He errs, though, in gliding too easily in the ruts inscribed by his genre models (the turn-of-the-century thriller, the boys’-adventure yarn). The book also suffers from the signal weakness of most novels that feature actual historical figures: Those characters end up seeming less real—less plausible, less present—than even moderately well-conceived fictional creations. Finally, there is too much comedy here, and in particular too much cornball byplay on the theme of Jewish mothering and its impact on Jewish sons. Comic intrusions into a suspense tale have their place, but they work best when they are few and sharp, like glints of light that shine through a large, dark canvas.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on November 29, 2012 in American, Historical, Novel, Puzzle

 

2 responses to “DANIEL STASHOWER. The Dime Museum Murders (1999).

  1. John

    November 29, 2012 at 12:05 PM

    I liked these books. THE FLOATING LADY is probably the best of the three. I remember Hardeen starting out as a Watson and actually solving this. Wasn’t Houdini an egotistical bungler making mistakes and repeatedly leaping to wrong conclusions? I liked that part of the books.

    Several years ago Stashower was in Chicago to talk about Doyle at a special exhibit at the Newberry Library. I talked with him briefly about these Houdini books and he regretted the botched work from the PR/Marketing department of Avon books. Apparently they didn’t do enough in his eyes to sell the books properly.

     
  2. Mike

    November 29, 2012 at 3:06 PM

    I’ve noticed that Stashower has essentially shut down his fiction-writing career, and I gather that the choice to produce nonfiction instead might not have been wholly his own. Which is too bad. (Not that he hasn’t done well as a nonfiction writer: I read “The Little Cigar Girl,” a true-crime work about the case that inspired Poe’s “Marie Roget” tale, and it’s a very solid work indeed.)

    I confess that didn’t like the Houdini-as-bungler aspect of this book. Tastes do differ, I guess. Although I enjoy a fairly wide range of detective fiction, there’s one type of story that has never appealed to me, and that’s the type in which the featured detective is a buffoon. But you’re right, John, in noting that Stashower does a clever job of inverting the Holmes-Watson dynamic in that way.

     

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