Wednesday, August 11, 2010


As a kid I had a real liking for stage magic and illusion. And back in those days it was all over the place. Magicians like Doug Henning and David Copperfield had annual TV specials and in between times there were always magicians showing up on various variety TV programs like That's Incredible or Real People (yes, I AM that old).

And going even farther back, magic and magicians played roles as heroes. In the Golden Age of comic books there was John Zatara -- a stage magician who could do actual magic by speaking words and phrases backwards.

Like other nascent superheroes Zatara used his abilities to fight crime as a back-up feature in DC Comics' Action Comics title.

Actually pre-dating Zatara was his look-alike Mandrake the Magician. Mandrake, however, existed primarily as a newspaper comic strip rather than a comic book. Also, unlike the later Zatara, Mandrake didn't really have any superpowers... exactly. He had the ability to "gesture hypnotically" and basically instantly hypnotize someone and then get them to see or feel whatever Mandrake wanted them to.

Zatara would fade from the comic book world as Mandrake would slowly disappear from newspaper funny pages but in the 1950's through the 1960's DC Comics got a second wind by re-imagining a number of their old, Golden Age characters. One of those, sort-of re-imagined was Zatara. In this case, a heretofore unknown daughter emerged -- Zatanna Zatara. Zatanna, like her father before her, performed magic by speaking backwards and has managed to last, off and on in publication history, for the past 40 years or so.

And while Zatara and Mandrake and Zatanna all had day jobs as stage magicians there were all granted greater-than-normal abilities and it was obviously their adventures as crime fighters which took center stage.

All of those comic book and comic strip writers, however, in their rush to basically create superheroes missed something fundamental about stage magic and illusion... and that is it's ties to mysteries.

For an audience there are two ways of approaching stage magic. One is to try to figure out how the trick was done... the other way is to surrender oneself to the illusion. To realize that this is a trick but to wonder at the inventiveness of it, to be amazed and to contemplate the ability to craft something which appears, on the surface, impossible.

For the magician the goal is to fool the audience, to trick them, to misdirect them, to make them look somewhere else while the real secret of the trick is being performed and to make them amazed that the seeming impossible has been made possible.

But for a good mystery writer the goals are rather similar. For those who write "fair play" mysteries (i.e. the readers have all the same clues the detective hero has so they have all the tools they need to solve the mystery ahead of the end) the goal is to keep the reader fooled, to misdirect them, to make them look at a character other than the one who committed the real crime and then to reveal the truth at the end much to their amazement.

I never put these things together, though, until I was in my 20's and became exposed to the works of a writer named Clayton Rawson. Rawson was one of the founding members of the Mystery Writers of America (who hand out the prestigious Edgar Awards every year), an amateur magician, and editor of the MWA's newletter and later of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Most of Rawson's books and short stories were published in the 1930's through the 1940's and, to be honest, most of the stories are very slight, light and breezy tales but they are enjoyable as all get-out and very unique in their detective protagonist. You see, Rawson took the phrase "write what you know" to heart and so the main crime solvers of most of his books and stories were stage magicians. He is known in particular for the creation of the Great Merlini, who featured in four books and one collection of short stories.

I was fortunate enough at one time to be able to get my hands on all of the Merlini books through my local library. Unfortunately, the Merlini books were reprinted in the 1970's, not long after Rawson's death and I doubt that they will ever be reprinted again so laying hands on copies of them is a difficult and expensive proposition.

Some criticize Rawson for taking "detours" in the stories to explain how certain tricks are done or to impart a bit of magic history or circus lore but at least these detours are informative and interesting and Rawson even sometimes gives away the secret for how the magic tricks are done.

The books are also intriguing and inventive due to Rawson twisting and playing with ideas. Take for example, his very first Merlini story, Death From a Top Hat

In many ways it starts as a traditional "Locked Room" mystery -- someone is murdered in a room which was locked from the inside; the challenge to the reader is doubled -- first they have to determine HOW the crime was committed and second they have to determine who did it. In most traditional Locked Room stories it is always a conundrum to figure out how a killer could get into and out of a locked room. Well, in Rawson's story the twist is that all of the suspects in the murder are either stage magicians or come from allied areas of entertainment and have worked around magicians as well. All of the suspects are people who make their living in performing seemingly impossible feats!

Also, surprising considering their popularity, mixing magic and mystery has not been popular on TV either. In 1973 there was The Magician starring Bill Bixby but this show only lasted one short season and even at that it was more a proto-Equalizer than it was a mystery series with Bixby's title character taking on the cases of those who needed help and using his stage magic and escapology skills to get them out of trouble.

A bit closer to the mark was 1986's Blacke's Magic with Hal Linden and Harry Morgan. Alexander "Alex" Blacke (Linden) had been born and raised on the carnival circuit with his conman/three card monte dealing father, Leonard Blacke (Morgan), and chorus dancer mother but had opted to play it straight and went into stage magic where he eventually became famous. When the world of stage magic starts to lose it's sparkle, Blacke decides to retire but soon finds a second career, using his knowledge of stage tricks and misdirection to help the police solve nearly impossible crimes.

I remember watching and really enjoying this series when I was a kid but sadly it only lasted 13 episodes. It's also not available on DVD but I did find eleven of the 13 episodes up on YouTube. Yes, it's illegal. I don't care. Much to my surprise I found in watching the stories as an adult now they are still charming and a heck of a lot of fun!

In this modern era, though, where the proliferation of specialized mystery stories continues unabated I find that there is nothing in my niche. There are cat-based mysteries for cat lovers, dog-based mysteries for dog lovers, horse-based mysteries for horse lovers, food-based mysteries for cooks, tea-based mysteries for tea lovers, coffee mysteries for coffee lovers, mysteries where one or more of the detectives is a ghost, mysteries where the detective is a vampire, knitting mysteries for knitters and even scrapbook mysteries for scrapbookers. There's even a mystery series which revolves around mystery books! I stand in the middle of all of this and ask one, simple, question -- where are the magicians? It would seem they have stepped into their cabinets of mystery and vanished from sight. Perhaps one day someone will find the magic word to make them appear on a printed page again.

As extra credit, here's the opening to Blacke's Magic

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