Monday, September 22, 2008
THE DIME MUSEUM MURDERS by Daniel Stashower
This is a difficult review to write. I've met Daniel Stashower a few times. He's a local, he's a terribly nice guy, he's cute as a button, and some of his other works are grand. THE ADVENTURE OF THE ECTOPLASMIC MAN is a great romp featuring Sherlock Holmes teaming up with Harry Houdini. TELLER OF TALES is a well-regarded biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, and THE BEAUTIFUL CIGAR GIRL is a very good analysis of the real-life mystery that inspired Poe's "The Mystery of Marie Roget."
But THE DIME MUSEUM MURDERS just doesn't work for me.
I was expecting a fun, lurid look behind the scenes into dime-museum culture, especially since I picked this up when mourning the closing of the late, great American Dime Museum in Baltimore. (Some of the collection there is now in the Palace of Wonders; see the links to the right.) Dime museums were collections of oddities and were basically permanent sideshows, with various acts going on.
But this novel...ugh. The murders aren't in the dime museum, and have nothing to do with the dime museum. Only a few pages of the book are in a dime museum, and they're pretty forgettable.
What we have is an attempt to make Houdini into a detective (as narrated by his brother Dash, aka Theodore Hardeen, aka Theodore Weiss, Houdini's brother). Houdini is summoned by the police when a millionaire is seemingly murdered by an automaton of a Chinese magician...but that automaton was thought to have been destroyed by a fire. They investigate various leads, including another toy-obsessed millionaire, a toyshop owner who's charged with the crime, and various other stuff.
The automaton angle was very intriguing, but nothing comes of it. The question of the collection is never explored, and subsequent murders are less baroque and more thuggish. And the final revelation is something of a letdown.
It's as if Stashower was all over the map with this, and didn't always know where he was going. There's a lot of disparate elements here that don't exactly add up to a satisfying story. I would have liked more about the dime museum, or more about the automatons, but both were neglected in favor of a run-of-the-mill plot.
Perhaps it would have been better with a title like HOUDINI ON THE CASE or something like that; the title it was published under is misleading. (That may or may not be Stashower's fault; publishers sometimes interfere.)
The book's at its strongest when looking at Houdini; it's an intriguing portrait of the man, who's often insufferable with his self-aggrandizing melodrama. He often seems to believe his own publicity. But sometimes Houdini just becomes too grating for his own good.
Sorry, Daniel. I still like you and will watch out for your next work, but this one just wasn't for me.