“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. But 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.