Nevermore by William Hjortsberg
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. (via Goodreads)
Not only does this book have Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe, but also literary personality Damon Runyon!
I am alternately intrigued by and dubious of fictional works that involve historical people. Obviously, there are certain celebrities that intrigue writers. Arthur Conan Doyle is one of them. This is the third book I’ve read in the past year with Doyle as a character and the second with Houdini (in the other case, it was a Houdini/Sherlock Holmes). For that matter, it’s the second with Poe as well, though the specter of the author plays a fairly minor part here. The Conan Doyle and Houdini team-up is particularly enticing. They knew each other, first as friends and later as semi-adversaries as their philosophies about spiritualism diverged.
There seems to be a couple of issues to consider when writing this kind of fiction. One is fidelity to events. Another is the richness of the world. For me, authors can get away with a certain amount of rearranging of events if they don’t interfere with the history of the world. Move the disastrous Atlantic City seance ahead a year and Houdini’s underwater endurance test back three years and it doesn’t bug me too much, especially if the author notes the changes. (But, have a magician sawing a woman into halves before 1920 and I’ll doubt he’s done his research.) The worse sin, in my opinion, is name- and event-dropping in an effort to show historical world-building. Like an incredibly dense chocolate cake, a little goes a long way when meeting celebrities of the day and hearing of their exploits. Mobsters, sports stars, politicians, and other entertainers come and go through Nevermore without really adding anything to the story.
In general, Nevermore suffers from having too many facets. I’m possibly going to go into the realm of spoilers here, consider this a warning. One plot involves Conan Doyle seeing the fairly miserable ghost of Poe. This causes him to question spiritualism, but not overly much. One plot involves Houdini being seduced by a beautiful medium. Priding himself on a certain level of moral standing, this causes him some consternation, but not overly much. The third plot involves the Poe murders. Houdini brags that Conan Doyle will solve them and Damon Runyon writes lurid newspaper articles about them. Unfortunately, even when there is a pattern defined, no one spends much time even attempting to put the pieces together before the last twenty pages of the book. Events come and go like cities on Conan Doyle and Houdini’s respective tours. Even the schism between Houdini and Conan Doyle doesn’t last more than a couple of pages.
There’s also a lot of fake tension. As a reader, I know that nothing will happen to Harry Houdini or Arthur Conan Doyle. This doesn’t mean they can’t be involved in peril, but the focus needs to be different. For example, and spoilers again, late in the book Houdini flies a plane from Chicago to New York in a storm. The point of this hasty trip is to beat a time constraint, but it’s written with the emphasis of “Will Houdini be killed in a fiery crash?!” I know Houdini won’t die, but I don’t know whether he’ll make it to NYC in time. That’s where the tension should be focused.
Honestly, the book could have been fine with one less plot thread, and the expendable one would be Arthur Conan Doyle’s. Runyon and Houdini would have made for a much more fun and focused team.
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
Publication date: October 1st 1994
Genre: Historical fiction.
Why did I choose to read this book? The Houdini/Conan Doyle team-up