Friday, 10 August 2012

Nevermore by William Hjortsberg

Quoth the raven, "What is
Conan Doyle on about?"
For a number of years I was mistaken in the belief that Hjortsberg's only contribution to the morass of the Western literary tradition was 1978's frankly awesome Falling Angel, intriguingly brought to the big screen as Angel Heart in the 80s by Alan Parker with Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel (names not so awesome, admittedly) and convincingly evil Robert De Niro as Lucifer incarnate. Now, I learn that not only has he finally completed a monster biography of Richard Brautigan called Jubilee Hitchhiker (for more on my own personal love of Brautigan, shared via the brains of the world's most eccentrically lovely people, visit The Brautigan Book Club), but that he has also dabbled in sci-fi and been consistently dribbling other literary content onto the bib of public opinion for many years!

As a former bookstore manager, I should be ashamed. But you clearly don't know me if so you think, as I am not.

This, written in 1994, is a work that, more than just a little, put me in mind of Glen David Gold's carpal tunnel-wrenchingly thick novel Carter Beats The Devil, in so far as both feature a world famous illusionist and a series of strange goings-on to tax the mind of a genius. That Gold's is fictitious and Hjortsberg's is none other than Mr Harry Houdini doesn't add much value to an otherwise intriguing murder mystery, but might explain why Gold chose to create one himself, rather than utilise one pre-fabricated, given that this one was already taken and there are few left to compare. Of course, Houdini gets a run out in Carter... if only to provide the whet stone against which Gold's character Charlie Carter sharpens his persona. 

What Hjortsberg does with an imaginative flourish that also carries echos through Carter... is to weave the stories of Houdini's attempts to expose fraudulent mystics with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's own spiritualist tour of America, in reality two circles which did touch, two personalities who did meet and a narrative device firmly rooted in the reality of the historian's pen, albeit with the artist's permitted license to tweak time lines to suit. Doyle, haunted by the ghost of Edgar A. Poe for a reason undisclosed but delicious for its mystery, arrives in Houdini's life just as Houdini's own faith in his scepticism is trembling with the blows landed by the arcane temptress  Opal Crosby Fletcher, another real-life charlatan making her fictive bow. 

Not to give away too much of the plot, for it is entirely engrossing and complex, but Houdini's retinue, past and present is being chipped away at by an unknown serial killer, who uses the stories of Poe as a template for his morbid entertainments, and Houdini becomes both enraptured and enraged by his adulterous lust for Fletcher whilst Doyle is swept up in Houdini's reckless boast that the mind behind Sherlock Holmes would easily solve the baffling killings. 

Mixed well, generously seasoned with wit and charm, brutal imagery and delicate word play, and baked in an imagination as febrile and fecund as that of Hjortsberg, what is served up is a stout and flavoursome stew of grand designs. I thoroughly recommend Hjortsberg to the uninitiated, to the avid crime reader and the sceptic alike, with no qualms about rejections. If you haven't tried him already, then it's not too late.

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