Magic and mystery fiction go together.
This I have known forever, but Sherlock Holmes and the Egyptian Hall Adventure reminded me. The 1993 pastiche by the late Val Andrews has Holmes mixing it up with the legendary magicians J.N. Maskelyne, David Devant, and Buatier De Kolta. They were all real, and so was the Egyptian Hall, Maskelyne’s theater of magic in London.
Douglas Greene’s invaluable John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles refers frequently to the Maskelyne illusions as the source of plot gimmicks for many of Carr’s “impossible” mysteries.
Andrews’s plot is a bit murky and the killer never appears in the book until the unmasking, but Andrews had the atmosphere nailed. And well he should have. Andrews performed as a magician and ventriloquist in music halls under various names as well as writing dozens of works about magic.
None of the Canonical Sherlock Holmes stories features a magician or even a music hall background, but many pastiches do. (See “The Adventure of the MagicUmbrella” and The Amateur Executioner.) And many other mysteries, old and new, involve the magical arts. My own Sebastian McCabe was a street magician in Europe as a young man.
In fact, one could spend a lot of time and money assembling a collection of mystery novels and short story collections that feature magicians as major or minor characters. Pride of place in such a collection undoubtedly would go to Clayton Rawson’s five books about The Great Merlini.
A number of writers have put Houdini himself into the role of amateur sleuth (sometimes in combination with Sherlock Holmes or Arthur Conan Doyle). My favorite Houdini mysteries come from the fertile mind of Daniel Stashower.
Now my wife and I are preparing roll out a series of mysteries featuring Benjamin Elias Sterling, a magician and ventriloquist on the Keith circuit in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He, too, was a real person – and Ann’s grandfather.
The strongest connection between magic and mystery fiction, however, is in the writing of the latter. Just like an illusionist, the mystery writer practices the art of misdirection – hiding clues in plain sight by distracting the reader’s attention elsewhere.
Not every fictional detective is a magician, but every mystery writer is.