Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Dime Museum Murders, by Daniel Stashower

The Dime Museum Murders
by Daniel Stashower

Our investigation is at yet in its earliest stages, but we've managed to rule out homicidal orangutans. (Lieutenant Murray)

A locked room murder with Harry Houdini as an amateur detective? Well, sign me up for that one.

My intense fascination with the exploits of Harry Houdini probably began to fade at some point around age ten. Which was a few decades ago. But there's apparently still some residue of that fascination left even to this day and so when I ran across Daniel Stashower's The Dime Museum Murders at my local library I did not hesitate.

I'm not sure what to make of the retrofitting of real-life people to make it seem that they were amateur detectives but in this particular case I was willing to suspend disbelief and just go along for the ride. The tale is told some years after Harry Houdini's death and the premise is that his brother Dash is relating the story to a newspaper reporter.

Dash is the sensible, level-headed brother, which is a good thing since he serves to keep Harry grounded. Stashower's portrayal of Harry Houdini is an interesting one as he's not a particularly likeable or even sympathetic character. In the time period covered by Dash's reminiscences it's early in Harry's career and he has yet to become the sensational escape artist who would later go on to capture the world's attention.

The Harry Houdini of this story is a driven man who remains convinced of his greatness even though he is scraping by, working as a magician and doing whatever else he needs to do in traveling shows and in a dime museum (think circus sideshow) in New York City. Because he spends a fair amount of time in their jail cells, practicing his escapes, Harry is rather well-known to the police and so is called upon to assist when a toy magnate is found in his locked (from the inside) study, with an odd little gadget known as an automaton on his desk.

Harry is called in to consult only because of his knowledge regarding automatons, but when a toy shop owner and good friend of the brothers is arrested for the crime, Harry drags Dash into a full-scale amateur investigation. Stashower throws in some interesting twists and turns along the way and the solution of the locked room murder is actually a rather clever one that shouldn't leave any reader feeling as though they've been cheated.

Although the brothers eventually solve the crime you could make the argument that Harry is not a particularly shrewd detective and Stashower keeps up a nice running gag wherein at one time or another Harry wrongly points the finger of suspicion at nearly everyone connected in any way with the case.

Highly recommended, even to those who didn't spend their early years as an avid Harry Houdini fan.

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