Sunday, October 29, 2023

The Floating Lady Murder

 The Floating Lady Murder (2000) by Daniel Stashower

It's turn-of-the-century New York and Harry Houdini is not yet "The Great Houdini" (though he insists otherwise) and his agent (and brother) Dash is trying to secure employment to keep the firm afloat. When the renowned magician Kellar advertises that positions are available with his show, Dash thinks it's the perfect opportunity, but he and Harry's wife Bess have a difficult time convincing him. They manage to spin things so Houdini thinks the opportunity is better than it is and off they go for an audition.

Harry is in the middle of his "Substitution Trunk Mystery" when a lion (which is part of Kellar's act" suddenly gets loose from his cage. While everyone else is panicked, Houdini is cool as cucumber and orchestrates a fantastic capture. Needless to say, he, Dash, and Bess are hired on the spot. They are invited to meet with Kellar himself who reveals that the lion's escape was no accident. Someone filed down the bolts holding the latch. And, in fact, this is not the first "accident" to plague the company. Kellar wants Houdini and company to not only join the company but to investigate these accidents--find out who is behind them and why. 

Kellar is trying to perfect a floating lady trick--something that he and his rival Servais Le Roy have been trying to achieve for some time. Kellar is very close to success and he wonders if Le Roy has spies in his camp who are trying to sabotage his efforts. When the trick is perfected and performed for the first time, it goes fatally wrong; Kellar's levitating assistant plunges over seventy feet to her death. Except...she doesn't die from the fall. Somehow, she was drowned in mid-air before tumbling from the ceiling of the theater. Some start whispering that the trick is cursed, after all the wife of Kellar's mentor fell to her death in a proto-type of the floating lady trick twenty-five years ago. It's up to Harry and Dash to prove that a very human agent is behind the latest death.

This is my second historical mystery with a magician in a row. I have to say that I like Tom Mead's Joseph Spector better than Harry Houdini. Harry is very full of himself...with very little cause so far in his career. He may wind up being one of the greatest escape artists of all time and, yes, I'd think that kind of act would take a great deal of self-confidence but that doesn't make him any less insufferable. The mystery itself is decent, though it becomes obvious very soon what must have happened for the woman to have been drowned in mid-flight (as it were). Stashower does a very good job of hiding the culprit, though, in part, that's because we don't know the motive. And there aren't any clues (that I recognized, even in retrospect) that point towards the motive. 

First line: Again, the dream.

Last line: "Everything in small steps."


Deaths = 4 (one natural; one drowned; two fell from height)

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