Sunday, August 28, 2016

Nevermore (1996) by William Hjortsberg

Nevermore (1996) by William Hjortsberg: The 1990's paperback version of Nevermore was clearly designed to resemble the paperback of The Alienist, Caleb Carr's riveting 1990's murder mystery set in New York that combined real people (most notably Teddy Roosevelt and William James) with fictional characters in pursuit of a serial killer. The interior front cover/two-page illustration actually seems to have come from the same photograph as the cover of The Alienist. Hmm.

The resemblance mostly ends there: Hjortsberg does combine fact and fiction, but the mystery and the serial killer are only a part of what the novel explores. As with Hjortsberg's more famous Falling Angel (made into the controversial 1987 movie Angel Heart starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro), Nevermore is invested in mysteries and morality and the oddities of human nature, not in the prime importance of the aims and methods of detection.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arrives in 1923 New York to begin his United States lecture tour on the Spirit World and his many attempts to communicate with the dead. Meanwhile, with vaudeville dying, Harry Houdini searches for a new money-making model for his magic shows while also waging a very public war against the mediums and spiritualists whom he views as being dangerous frauds. Despite their radical disagreement on spiritualism, however, Houdini and Doyle were friends. 

And a mysterious string of murders, each based on a different work by Edgar Allan Poe, soon seems to be working its way towards either Houdini or Doyle as the final victim.

Hjortsberg does a marvelous job of combining fact and fiction. He deploys a lengthy and detailed set of historical events and personages while keeping the novel light on its feet and often movingly dark and poetic. But Nevermore is also very funny at points. Nevermore's depiction of Houdini and Doyle makes them lively, fascinating individuals. And the sexy spirit medium who has dubbed herself Isis -- what's her game?

Nevermore is more of a novel with a mystery than a mystery novel. Still, it's satisfying in its fictional and factual elements. And you'll find out how a couple of Houdini's famous tricks were accomplished (though not all of the ones depicted in the novel). Hjortsberg even throws in a climax that's wittily movie-like. All this and the morose ghost of Edgar Allan Poe, visible only to Doyle. Highly recommended.

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