A Review by MIKE TOONEY:

OTTO PENZLER, Editor — Whodunit? Houdini? Thirteen Tales of Magic, Murder, Mystery. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1976.

   This is an anthology of thirteen mystery stories dealing with the common theme of magic; yet this is not a book of fantasy. While magic is central to each story, the solutions (with one exception) are as down-to-earth as one could hope for (the exception, by John Collier, of course being sui generis).

OTTO PENZLER Whodunit Houdini

   Despite the title, Harry Houdini never does appear in propria persona; but his spirit seems to thread its way through this anthology, especially in “One Night in Paris” in which Houdin/Houdini lore becomes a large part of the rationale for the story’s sometimes feverish action and resolution.

   The authors in Whodunit? Houdini? include Clayton Rawson, Carter Dickson, Frederick Irving Anderson, William Irish, Walter B. Gibson, Stanley Ellin, and Erle Stanley Gardner: an impressive representation of some of pulp fiction’s greatest practitioners. For that reason alone the book is worth seeking out.

   Otto Penzler tells us, “The magicians in this book take many forms …. Here, some of the world’s greatest writers have entered the many worlds of magic: the bright, happy world of exciting stage shows, the darker world of crime and murder, and the velvet black world of unrelenting terror. Some of these thirteen tales deal with the question of whodunit. But, as with all magicians and magic acts, the deeper question is howdunit. Sometimes, the answer seems impossible. But don’t look too hard. You might not want to know.”

   For each of the stories below, a short excerpt has been taken from Otto Penzler’s introduction, followed by some brief comments by myself:

1. “From Another World” (1948) by Clayton Rawson (1906-1971)

    “Rawson presented the problem in ‘From Another World’ to John Dickson Carr, who solved it and recorded his solution in a novel, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience. Rawson’s solution is entirely different.”

Comment: A locked-room murder solved by the Great Merlini. A very rich man dies in a sealed (literally) room, stabbed with a disappearing knife that was never handled by the only other person known to be present; seashells suddenly appear from nowhere; and auditory impressions assume the greatest significance.

2. “In the House of Suddhoo” (1886) by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

    “‘In the House of Suddhoo’ is the oldest story in this book, but it could have been written yesterday.”

Comment: A confidence trick, Indian-style, with the “mark” an anxious, feeble old man; “The magic that is always demanding gifts is no true magic.” With a little rearranging of the story’s elements, John Dickson Carr could have made an entire novel of this vignette.

3. “Rope Enough” (1941) by John Collier (1901-1980)

    In “the Indian rope trick … an apparently ordinary rope rises vertically in the air and remains in that position. In ‘Rope Enough,’ the reader will discover what is beyond the top end of the rope.”

Comment: You’ll either love or hate this one; with John Collier, there’s usually no middle ground.

4. “The New Invisible Man” (1940) by Carter Dickson (1906-1977)

    In this story, “Colonel March, the head of Scotland Yard’s aptly-named Department of Queer Complaints, calmly hears an account of a murder committed by a pistol fired by a glove — an empty glove unattached to an arm in an otherwise unoccupied room.”

Comment: It looks like murder, but where’s the body? Colonel March solves it in no time flat; think Rear Window without the grue.

5. “Blind Man’s Buff” (1914) by Frederick Irving Anderson (1877-1947)

   This story features “the American counterpart” of A. J. Raffles, the Infallible Godahl, who “… is such a brilliant thief that he has never been suspected of a crime. The intellectual superior of any potential adversary on the side of the law, his nefarious endeavors are inevitably successful. They cannot fail, because Godahl’s massive brain has foreseen every possibility, anticipated every difficulty, and discovered a solution to every problem.”

Comment: Godahl outwits everybody and shows that Barnum’s dictum about one being born every minute was low by a factor of fifty — no, make that fifty-ONE.

6. “The Lord of Time” (1946) by Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950)

    This “… is a story about Cagliostro, who was a master magician. Or was he? It is surely a crime story, because a brutal murder is committed. Or is it? At least a clever con job is pulled off. Or is it?”

Comment: The author of The Sea Hawk, Scaramouche, and Captain Blood offers a tale about one of history’s greatest con men; it’s told in that pseudo-archaic style appropriate to the time and place of the story. If nothing else, it’s a pleasurable read.

7. “Papa Benjamin” (1935) by William Irish (1903-1968)

“Black magic is one of the oldest forms of magic, of apparently supernatural force. It is easy to ridicule it, to disbelieve it, to laugh at it (if you dare). Yet whole nations have believed in its power for centuries. Why?”

Comment: “William Irish,” of course, was a nom de plume of Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich, who often wrote with the Cornell Woolrich byline. You might have read this one under its original title, “Dark Melody of Madness”; but whatever it’s called, the narrative’s compelling power derives unmistakably from its atmosphere, gloomy and oppressive and all-enveloping — an achievement comparable to the best efforts of another writer to whom Woolrich, personally and professionally, bears some resemblance, Edgar Allan Poe. You probably won’t forget this story for a long time, if ever.

8. “Juliet and the Magician” (1953/1958) by Manuel Peyrou (1902-1974)

    “When the great writers of mystery and detective stories are discussed, the names that head the list of immortals are almost exclusively English and American, as if writers from other nations eschewed the genre. Well, to be truthful, both quantitatively and qualitatively, they lag far behind the English-language authors. Of course there are exceptions, but not enough to notice. Among writers in Spanish … are Jorge Luis Borges” and “his close friend, Manuel Peyrou ….”

Comment: A murder on-stage during a magician’s act — with it, the killer hopes to rid himself of a vexatious persoon and establish an unbreakable alibi at the same time; but some clever armchair (actually, barstool) deductions by an onlooker severely curtail what had seemed, in all honesty, to be a most unpromising career.

9. “The Mad Magician” (1938) by “Maxwell Grant” (1931-1967)

    This story from Crime Busters magazine features “… Norgil the Magician. The suave, handsome, and mustached conjurer appeared in a series of stories that never approached the success of the Shadow tales, but consistently ranked among the magazine’s most popular features …. Filled with action and colloquial speech, it is typical of the Norgil stories and, in fact, of most pulp fiction. Its background of magic is absolutely authentic ….”

Comment: Norgil the Magician solves two crimes at once with the assistance of his pretty protégé Miriam and a very curious cat, despite a tricky Japanese Box and a murderous mummy case; not a fair-play mystery, but nevertheless diverting.

10. “One Night in Paris” (1955) by Walter B. Gibson (1897-1985)

    “The Great Gerard fights crime in two stories,” both of which were penned by Walter Gibson who “… produced more than a million words a year for fifteen years. He wrote more than 300 novels, 283 about a single character — one of the most important heroes ever to stride majestically across the pages of a popular publication: The Shadow. The ‘Maxwell Grant’ byline under which the stories appeared was a Street and Smith ‘house name’ used by Gibson (and occasionally a few other writers) during the 1930s and 1940s. The only other pulp hero created by Gibson (‘Grant’) is Norgil the Magician, who appears in the previous story.”

Comment: Someone commits a locked-room murder and tries to pin it on the Great Gerard: BIG mistake, because as a trained magician he knows how to avoid traps as well as set them. The next time you’re in Paris at the Cabaret de la Mort (“Soiree Fantastique”), between La danse des squelettes and the cotelette de loup garou, watch out for the man with the mitraillette

11. “The Shadow” (1931) by Ben Hecht (1894-1964)

    Hecht is best-known for his plays and movies (Gunga Din, Notorious, Spellbound, Kiss of Death) but “… his stories inexplicably lack the popularity of less talented writers of the same period,” among them being “‘The Shadow,’ a strange tale of retribution involving the Marvelous Sarastro ….”

Comment: An unrelievedly grim story of doom and irony that for some reason reminds me most of Poe’s “William Wilson.”

12. “The Moment of Decision” (1955) by Stanley Ellin (1916-1986)

    “In some ways the ultimate detective story is the riddle story — the puzzle without a solution, the winding road that leads nowhere. In these tales of uncertain endings, there is only one detective who can offer an answer to the problem: you …. this brilliant riddle story is … unforgettable and hauntingly terrifying …. Read this …. Then make YOUR decision.”

Comment: A clever variation of Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger?” — Penzler tells us this story was televised in 1961 with Fred Astaire in a non-singing, non-dancing dramatic role.

13. “The Hand is Quicker than the Eye” (1939) by Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970)

    Unlike Gardner’s other literary creations (e.g., Perry Mason), “Lester Leith is a different kettle of herring. He is on the opposite side of the legal coin, a confidence man of the first rank. He appeared in about seventy-five adventures, beginning in 1929 and extending through the vital days of the pulps. He solves crimes merely by reading newspaper accounts of them, then proves to the thieves that crime does not pay by ‘liberating’ their ill-gotten gains. There is little fear of legal retribution because his victims are not likely to press charges. Leith turns the swag over to charity — minus 20 percent for ‘costs of collection.'”

    The crime has everything to challenge the imagination of the investigator: Oriental background, fabulous pearls, a mysterious disappearance …

Comment: Lester Leith turns to magic to recover a stolen necklace and succeeds right under the noses of the criminals and the police. The story is fast-paced and quite entertaining; its original title was “Lester Leith, Magician.”