WILLIAM HJORTSBERG – Nevermore. Grove / Atlantic, hardcover, 1994. St. Martin’s, paperback, 1996.

   He of the unpronounceable name is best known for the “cult classic” (which cult?) Falling Angel, which I think is a very overrated novel. Which is not to say that he isn’t talented — he is.

   The time is 1923, and the place is New York City. Harry Houdini is there, making a triumphant return to the Palace and is at the height of his career and powers. A. Conan Doyle is there, too, embarking on a six-month American tour to promote spiritualism.

   So is a murderer who kills seemingly at random, but always taking a story written by Edgar Allan Poe as a template for his crime. And so is the ghost of Poe himself — or at best so thinks Doyle, to whom the apparition appears with distressing frequency. Houdini and Doyle become acquainted and then somewhat estranged, owing to their opposing views on spiritualism, but work together to try and puzzle out the murders. And then both are menaced.

   Well, this was … interesting. It’s a fine novel from a historical standpoint, bringing America and particularly the Big Apple of the 20s to vivid life. Hjosrtberg does a good job with Houdini and Doyle, and with Damon Runyon (who appears frequently) as well.

   The identity of the killer is given away (at least to me) well before the end of the book, and in such a glaring fashion that I can only assume it was done deliberately — but why? There really isn’t all that much detection, though there’s an interesting sub-plot that provides a red herring or two.

   It’s primarily a novel of atmosphere and character, and considered on that basis a goo done. Houdini is particularly colorful and believable. Hjortsberg is an excellent wordsmith, though there was one glaringly inappropriate phrase that should have been caught by an editor. It’s a pretty good book, but not an outstanding one.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #15, September 1994.