On Magic in Murder (and why a Magician’s Handbook is the best impossible crime lecture)

Forcing spectators to interpret what they see and hear in ways which they know are false comes as close to genuine magic as we are likely to get.

Henning Nelms (Hake Talbot) in Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers

The very first person to open the discussion on the relation of stage magic to the art of murder was, to the best of my understanding, Clayton Rawson, who was, suitably, as much stage magician as crime writer. Published in 1938, his first novel Death from a Tophat featured the impossible strangulation of a cultist in his perfectly sealed apartment, and was notable for the cast being fully populated by illusionists and magicians, down to the detective The Great Merlini. Merlini would go on to frequently use stage magic as an analog for how one can commit murder in a locked room.

Clayton Rawson would go on to write three more locked room mystery novels and twelve short stories. Six years later, in 1944, another American stage magician by the name of Henning Nelms would publish a locked room mystery under the pseudonym of Hake Talbot, possibly inspired by Rawson’s success. A much more cinematic take on the impossible crime, Rim of the Pit almost convinces the reader that what he’s witnessing is honest-to-god horrors unfurling in the pages! A man appearing to fly after a possession, a locked room murder, and footprints that appear to mysteriously begin and end in otherwise virgin snow, the book takes you along for a ride and you bear witness to spectacles until the curtain calls, the illusion drops, and you’re reminded that it was all just a show. A very similar feat of conviction occurred in his second novel, The Hangman’s Handyman, wherein a man appears to spontaneously decompose! As Talbot himself said in Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers, “forcing spectators to interpret what they see and hear in ways which they know are false comes as close to genuine magic as we are likely to get,” and if that’s the case then it is impossible to deny the magic in this novel. Truly, Talbot took pages from his own magician’s handbook in the writing of Rim of the Pit.

The conversation would hit an awkward pause until many, many years later, when Jonathan Creek hit British television. The show, which in many ways endears itself to the Golden Age classics, features the titular Jonathan Creek, a magician’s assistant who winds up getting himself unfortunately tangled up in many seemingly impossible murders, usually brought to him by his mystery writer friend who uses the cases for inspiration for her work. Just like in the original works of Clayton Rawson, Jonathan Creek uses stage magic as an analog for the illusions involved in committing supposedly supernatural slayings.

Whether you love every of these works, or you hate them all, or you feel they’re a mixed bag, they’re perhaps the most inf an important takeaway here: the only difference between a locked room murder and stage magic is that at the end of one a body appears, truly sawed in half.

What made Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit and the subsequent The Hangman’s Handyman such impactful works of impossible crime is the illusion. Where John Dickson Carr presents the impression of the supernatural — a dollop, a taste — Talbot may very well have succeeded in providing a reader with impossible scenarios where he’s truly not sure he’s reading a detective novel or a gothic horror tale. It takes some effort to remember that there are physical, human forces at work and not some puppeteering supernatural foe. This is something Talbot touched upon in Magic and Showmanship, where he posits that a trick makes the observer wonder how it was done, but an illusion convinces the observer that there is no need to wonder: it was simply magic!

To note, Talbot’s mystery writing was well-supplemented by his own technique in creating illusions on the stage. The topic manifests very objectively in Jonathan Creek and The Great Merlini, but in Talbot’s writing it is much more intuitive. To take a look at Magic and Showmanship, the writer of Golden Age-styled mysteries may be entertained to find that the advice is not totally inapplicable to their craft. In fact, to date no novel has been written on the nature of the craft of producing an effective locked room puzzle plot, but if any should there be, Magic and Showmanship is the act to follow!

In Chapter 1 of Magic and Showmanship, Talbot discusses why meaning and context are the greatest parts of engaging people with your illusion. His own example, if you were to approach a man and tell him to check his pocket, and he were to find a ham sandwich, he’d be amazed, but then think “what of it?” Whereas, if a man were to say he was hungry, and you could conjure a ham sandwich for him out of thin air, he’d be amazed and the miracle would have practical meaning! In the world of impossible crimes, very much the same is true.

Say, for example, you have a stunt artist who is tied up to a stake and burnt, and the performer is able to vanish from her bindings without a single burn on her body. The detective may take an interest in it as an intellectual exercise, but why, fundamentally, does this matter to us as readers of impossible crimes? The stakes are nil — it’s simply a passing fancy and interest. Now, let’s say, for example, that the stunt happens near a museum, and she appears to steal a valuable gem! Or, when she vanishes from her bindings, the corpse of a man reappears in her place, burnt to death! Now we’re involved — not only is the illusion spectacular, there’s meaning and stakes to give it authenticity! We no longer feel as if the talent that goes into the impossible is wasted.

For a modern example, Tom Mead wrote for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine a locked room short story called “The Indian Rope Trick” wherein a magician claims to have perfected an old trick where a rope sticks straight up into the air, an assistant climbs up, and then vanishes! This alone is a spectacular magic trick, but not in itself impetus for investigation when the assistant simply shows back up. However, when the magic trick appears to have coincided with a murder, there’s finally extra meaning to the illusion!

Two chapters down the line, he deconstructs what gives an illusion meaning. The phenomena itself needs to be engaging, naturally. And, prior to performing it, the magician needs a suitable cause to be presenting this trick. He is no longer a magician, but a man claiming to have evidence of the supernatural! And, finally, physical evidence that can be misconstrued as true evidence of the supernatural at play.

While in a locked room mystery, the motive is revealed near the end and not at the beginning, it’s very much true that priming for the phenomena is something that gives it more impact. In the book he mentions that a man can either pretend to be a fanatic wanting to prove astrology true or a disparager attempting to prove it is absolutely silly. In both cases, the performer will introduce an illusion which appears to vindicate astrology. In a locked room mystery, to be presented with a supposed curse, or stories of a vampire, or the bold claims of a man that he can summon demons gives the locked room much more impact than just a supposedly impossible crime that seems to just happen. And, I don’t think I need to explain this, but the whole section wherein he discusses misleading evidence is such a clear analog for red herrings in mystery writing that it’s insane.

Every chapter of Magic and Showmanship is ripe with similar such advise that is designed for the illusionist and show magician, but can easily be repurposed into advice for writing your locked room murder. There are twenty-two chapters and every one of them has given me a little something to consider. I obviously will not explain the conversion for every chapter, as this post has gone on long enough, but I would like to note another book I purchased on the subject.

Mark Anthony Wilson wrote a book called The Complete Course in Magic wherein he gives the reader a cornucopia of tricks and illusions to employ, not the least of which include summoning people from a box proven to be empty and have no secret holes on it, inexplicably trading places with another person in front of a audience and vanishing a person who sat in a chair far away from any possible obstructions!

In a work-in-progress project of mine tentatively called The Final Execution, I write of a solicitor who is called to purchase an artifact claiming to be the last executioner’s sword ever used in Europe from a historical antiquities auction. The item was stored in a windowless, single-doored room behind a stage and was in plain sight of nearly a hundred auction-goers, and yet it is somehow stolen! The sword itself reappears inside of the solicitor’s client’s study where it subsequently was used to behead the victim! The study was also perfectly guarded by the victim’s family and who swear nobody entered the room that could be a killer.

Both tricks, involving witnesses instead of impossible scenarios happening when nobody is around, were inspired by illusions and lectures provided in The Complete Course in Magic and Magic and Showmanship. It is for this reason that I think that the latter of these two may be the best lecture on the impossible crime ever written, and it didn’t even mean to be! The former, an accidental taxonomy of impossible crime solutions.

A loving message to any budding writer of locked rooms and impossible crimes: buy these books and become a magician. It’ll do you some good.

7 thoughts on “On Magic in Murder (and why a Magician’s Handbook is the best impossible crime lecture)

  1. scottkratner November 29, 2020 / 11:00 pm

    Though the principles of deception employed are indeed identical, as a 40-year working magician (until about 9 months ago!), I find one primary distinction between the work of the magician and the mystery writer: for the magician, effect is all. He need not concern himself with how satisfactory his audience will find his method, because they are never made aware of it. Whatever successfully achieves the effect is sufficient. But for the mystery writer, the illusion must not only deceive, but the method must also satisfy.

    That is the reason that I feel Rim of the Pit, for all of its admitted excellences, is ultimately slightly inferior to the best works of Carr. Because the solution turns out to be— perhaps predictably for the work of a stage magician— a series of unrelated magic tricks. Every impossibility is satisfactorily explained, but there is little of the causal elegance that characterizes the best solutions of the genre, and little of the “outside the culprit’s plan” incident that creates many of the best plot complications.

    If I’ve is looking for a true taxonomy of impossibilities from the standpoint of the magician, I most highly recommend Dariel Fitzkee’s The Trick Brain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isaac Stump November 29, 2020 / 11:11 pm

      Truthfully, the very last thing I was expecting was an honest-to-God magician to show up! I’ll have to pick your brain at some point, if you’re not horribly opposed. And, of course, The Trick Brain has just been slapped at the very top of my “must-buy” resources list.

      Liked by 1 person

    • thegreencapsule November 30, 2020 / 1:43 pm

      I agree that the solutions to Rim of the Pit are “meh”. I still rank it highly because the story is excellent.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. thegreencapsule November 30, 2020 / 1:50 pm

    A very interesting post, in particular the showmanship part. It’s one of those things that seems obvious once you read it, but you wouldn’t think of otherwise. And of course now my mind is flooded by all of these examples (mostly by Carr) where a fairly vanilla trick is dressed up into so much more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isaac Stump November 30, 2020 / 2:58 pm

      I think my favorite way to employ adding a ghost story to a locked room mystery is to do so in a way that even when it’s accepted that the crime is human and not supernatural the ghost story continues to be a catalyst for misunderstandings, specifically in the assumption that in method (and not presentation alone) is the killer attempting to mimic the story. I think this adds an extra oomph to the misdirection when done right, and definitely plays into how showmanship can be as much a trick as anything in a mystery.

      Say, for example, a locked room mystery with a story involving a ghost that loves to kill men in their sleep may lead investigators to overlook the possibility that the victim was awake when the crime was committed… a key point to elucidating the matter! Just a silly little idea I came with off the top of my head, but truly showmanship isn’t just flavor! It’s a clue!

      Liked by 1 person

      • thegreencapsule December 1, 2020 / 12:08 am

        Some obvious examples that come to mind: The Red Widow Murders (a book made more on the myth than the solution) and The Plague Court Murders.

        Liked by 1 person

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