The Amazing Harvey by Don Passman introduces Harvey Kendall, a wisecracking, struggling stage magician in L.A., whose sleuthing is inspired by the inexplicable presence of his own DNA at a crime scene (available February 25, 2014).
It seems our man Harvey just can’t get a break. A low level stage magician, with his eyes on the prize of Las Vegas, he makes ends meet as a Substitute Teacher. You gotta love a guy who shows up to school in his spangled magician’s coat, with his bird Lisa on his shoulder.
“You’re late, Mr. Kendall.”
I smiled at her. Truth is, I usually get to class a little late. I think it’s better to come in after the kids are already sitting down. That, and the fact that I can’t seem to estimate time very well. The matron placed the clipboard on the counter.
“Room two eleven. Second ﬂoor.” I spun around and started off.
She called after me. “Mr. Kendall?”
I turned back. “Do you think that’s appropriate clothing for a teacher?”
I turned my palms up. “It’ll have to do. My chicken suit is at the cleaners.”
Harvey’s snappy one-liners make me hear a rim-shot in the back of my head, but the thing that’s great about it, is that Harvey seems to hear it, too. He is, after all, a consummate showman.
And it’s this ability, along with the specific kind of observation powers necessary to be a good magician, which serve him incredibly well as an amateur sleuth. Harvey says: “It’s an occupational hazard of magicians that we have to look behind the curtains. I can’t watch a magic show without ﬁguring out how it’s done. Secrets drive me nuts.”
I like mysteries where I get to see something of a world, a subculture that I don’t have much experience with. (Full Disclosure: I am OBSESSED with Stage Magicians). I like to learn a little something. And Passman does a great job of showing us the world of Stage Magicians, without either turning them into the Underdog Superhero or the Butt of the Joke. Several scenes take place in the famed Magic Castle (for my money, the ONLY reason for a trip to L.A.), and we also get to see a couple of Harvey’s tricks—but like a good magician, Passman doesn’t show us how all the tricks work. But Harvey’s knowledge of how these tricks work plays into the structure of the mystery, to great effect.
Wrongly accused and sitting in jail, Harvey contemplates escape artists, which leads him to thinking about the big illusionists, how they might have planted this kind of evidence against him.
Harry Blackstone. The wiry man with ﬂailing hair. One of the greatest in the vaudeville era. He has a room dedicated to him at the Magic Castle. Blackstone once told an audience he was going to perform a trick so enormous that they had to go outdoors to see it. He guided them out, row by row. When they got to the street, they saw that the theater was on ﬁre. His spiel—something we magicians call “patter”—had gotten them out safely.
Blackstone did spectacular stage tricks. The Dancing Hand-kerchief that darted through the air, and still danced after being plugged inside a glass bottle. The Electric Cabinet, where he locked his assistant inside and speared her with lighted ﬂuorescent bulbs. His signature trick: pretending to hypnotize a woman in a ﬂowing gown, placing her on a table, without hiding her inside a box, and running a huge buzz saw through her midsection. Blackstone also did a trick where he made a woman disappear onstage, then had her instantly run down the aisle from the back of the theater. It stunned the audiences of the day.
That trick’s still good for a few gasps.
Yet it was one of his simplest.
Because . . . I stopped pacing. Hang on. . . . Could that be it?
And I’ll leave that there, so nothing gets spoiled for you.
But what the book reminded me of more than anything were the old hard boiled gumshoe novels, like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett. Harvey has all the trappings of a noir-hero: he’s the guy who’s wrongly accused, he has major money problems, he’s great with the patter, and the whole thing takes place in the glaring sun of Los Angeles. But Passman makes use of the tropes, instead of being trapped by them. He takes the dark cynicism of Noir and turns it around to something funny and clever, something with a little more levity, but never turning all the way to silly.
The supporting characters are mostly women, and also contrary to the Noir tropes, they are competent professionals, with no femme fatale clutches whatsoever. In fact, they are often more capable than Harvey himself. (Although I could have done without the Midol quips. Those were never funny.) The portrayal of his attorney, Hannah—a “fat girl” he went to high school with, who is now trim and successful—veers dangerously close to “fat shaming,” then manages to turn the corner (but only barely). The subplot with his love interest, Carly (a scientist at the DNA lab) starts into some dangerous territory about abortion politics that didn’t lend much to the story. But these things were not enough to truly detract from my pleasure in the book. At least not very much. Your mileage may vary.
The story moves at good clip, without leaving me exhausted. The clues and red herrings are hidden up all the right sleeves, and Passman manages to pull a rabbit out of his hat with the ending. (See what I did there?)
The Amazing Harvey is a strong mystery with a truly compelling hero, who I hope to see more from. I’d love to see what Harvey could get up to once he finally makes it to Vegas….
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Amy Eller Lewis is a writer and Library Fairy in Southern New England. She works at one of the oldest libraries in the country, www.providenceathenaeum.org which is definitely haunted. Follow her on Twitter @amyellerlewis or on Tumblr: scriptoriana.tumblr.com.