The Last Illusion
by Rhys Bowen
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
The Last Illusion, set in 1903, is #9 in a mystery series about an Irish immigrant in New York who finds herself sole owner of a detective agency after, early in the series, her employer is murdered. Molly is a tall, healthy young woman who eschews corsets and has "doomed" herself "to not being socially acceptable by not being able to produce an attack of the vapors." When she and her policeman fiancé witness a performance that goes gruesomely wrong by an illusionist opening a show featuring Harry Houdini, Molly retains sufficient presence of mind to calm Houdini's hysterical wife and offer her a business card.
Not yet thirty, Houdini has just returned, flushed with success, from an extensive European tour in which he became known as the "Handcuff King" for his genius as an escape artist. Like all illusionists, he is fiercely protective of the secrets behind his tricks. Fearing a threat to his life, his wife, Bess, hires Molly to discreetly protect him. Time and again, though, Molly is thwarted in her search for evidence. Even Bess refuses to share information that might reveal his methods. Unfortunately, Molly's detective agency is floundering. Bess is her only client. As Molly begins to fear she is in over her head, she must also contend with the protective instincts of her fiancé, who has forbidden her to have anything to do with the Houdini case.
The Last Illusion serves up a clever (though perhaps too multi-faceted) mystery in which Molly's deductions contribute to the solution. Her unlikely exploits as a lady detective are amusing, if not hilariously madcap enough to make their unlikeliness a plus. But the novel also offers a fascinating and believable portrayal of the lives of stage magicians in the early twentieth century, from the masterful Harry Houdini to the vaudeville performers eking out livings at the edge of the law. (2010; 279 pages, including a brief Historical Note)
More about The Last Illusion at Powell's books or Amazon.com
Other novels about stage magicians:
The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes (2008), about a Victorian stage magician recruited by the police to assist them in a murder investigation. More info
Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold (2001), about a young master illusionist who performs in American vaudeville in the 1920s. More info
The Magician's Wife by Brian Moore (1997), about the wife of a French stage magician sent to Algeria in 1856 to discredit an Algerian holy man. More info
Nonfiction about Harry Houdini:
The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush (2006). More info
The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini by Ruth Brandon (1993).
Houdini on Magic, edited by Walter Gibson (1953 Dover edition includes the 1930 Houdini's Escapes and the 1931 Houdini's Magic). More info
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