Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini team up to search for a literary-minded killer
It is 1923 and a beautiful young woman has just been found outside a tenement, bones crushed, head ripped from her shoulders. A few stories above, her squalid apartment has been ransacked, and twenty-dollar gold pieces litter the floor. The window frame is smashed. She seems to have been hurled from the building by a beast of impossible strength, and the only witness claims to have seen a long-armed ape fleeing the scene. The police are baffled, but one reporter recognizes the author of the bloody crime: the long-dead Edgar Allan Poe.
A psychopath is haunting New York City, imitating the murders that made Poe's stories so famous. To Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the killing spree is of purely academic interest. But when Poe's ghost appears in Doyle's hotel room, the writer and the magician begin to suspect that the murders may hold a clue to understanding death itself.
Conan Doyle and Houdini make for an intriguing double act. Hjortsberg has taken a nugget of truth, the fact that they knew one another, and crafted a story around it. Both men were contemporaries and had occasion to travel in similar social circles from time to time. They also had a very public falling out over the subject of spiritualism. Conan Doyle was a firm believer while Houdini made it his mission to debunk so called practitioners. From that the author has created two characters that work as a perfect foil in a supernatural murder mystery.
The two men are from completely different worlds, have differing ideas about most things but still they respect each other's opinion. They appear as almost the living embodiment of their respective countries. Conan Doyle is all stiff upper lips and `by jove', the quintessential Brit abroad while Houdini is every inch the dapper American gent. Both are at the height of their respective professions and the verbal sparring between the two keeps things interesting. It's a nice touch that there are two protagonists that don't see eye to eye on every detail.
The supernatural elements are quite subtly handled. The references to Edgar Allan Poe's fiction are handled well and have a suitably gothic air. I'm sure that anyone who has ever read Poe before will enjoy trying to spot the elements that come from his work.
There are a host of historic cameos, the likes of Buster Keaton, Damon Runyon and W.C. Fields all make an appearance. Runyon in particular is an enjoyable inclusion as the author sprinkles his dialogue with lots of twenties slang. This adds a nice air of authenticity to proceedings.
Is this the book for you? Well, if you've watched and enjoyed Boardwalk Empire then you'll get a lot from this book. The sights and sounds of the `Roaring Twenties' are vividly brought to life. Prohibition era New York is a city full of dodgy dives and larger than life characters, this is the home of speakeasies and prize fights. Hjorstberg obviously delights in describing the outlandish, opulent detail of what was a very decadent time. Add just a hint of the supernatural and you'll find yourself with a riveting read.
on 16 July 1999
I enjoyed this book very much. It is set in 1920s New York, and the main protagonists are real life people, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, and Damon Runyan, amongst others. Mr. Hjortsberg deals with these people sympathetically and amusingly, whilst intertwining their lives with a series of murders all linked in with famous Edgar Allan Poe stories, and Conan Doyle and Houdini's well documented differences of opinion on spiritualism and contact with the other world through mediums. This is a literate and intelligent book, and I thoroughly recommend it to lovers of modern history and classic whodunnits. We even have Poe's ghost intervening in the action! Great stuff.
on 7 March 2005
This fairly competent detecetive story suffers somewhat from excessive name dropping, the same names in some cases that Doctorow used to far better period effect in "Ragtime". Implausible, but with a reasonable pace and an accessible style this is a mystery for those who find mystery stories unrewarding.
This "detective thriller" takes far too long to get going and then it's over before you know it. Hjortsberg gets bogged down setting the scene, introducing a host of historical characters (Conan Doyle, Houdini, Damon Runyon, Edgar Allan Poe, Jack Dempsey, Ring Lardner, Douglas Fairbanks, Louis Meyer ......),a debate on spiritualism, and period details, often for their own sake. Finally there's very little deductive work, Conan Doyle is a bit of a bumbler - more like Watson than Holmes. The motives and psychology of the mad serial killer are poorly explained and the plot becomes wildly convoluted, implausible and melodramatic. The characters are fairly single dimensional - like vaudeville performers rather than real people. Hjortsberg should read Caleb Carr for some tips about working period details into a plot and always remember it is "background". If he's going to write social history he's got to research his facts better - for instance, in cricket, you don't "bowl a century".