Nevermore by William Hjortsberg
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini team up to search for a literary-minded killer
It is 1923 and a beautiful young woman has just been found outside a tenement, bones crushed, head ripped from her shoulders. A few stories above, her squalid apartment has been ransacked, and twenty-dollar gold pieces litter the floor. The window frame is smashed. She seems to have been hurled from the building by a beast of impossible strength, and the only witness claims to have seen a long-armed ape fleeing the scene. The police are baffled, but one reporter recognizes the author of the bloody crime: the long-dead Edgar Allan Poe.
A psychopath is haunting New York City, imitating the murders that made Poe’s stories so famous. To Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the killing spree is of purely academic interest. But when Poe’s ghost appears in Doyle’s hotel room, the writer and the magician begin to suspect that the murders may hold a clue to understanding death itself.
Conan Doyle and Houdini make for an intriguing double act. Hjortsberg has taken a nugget of truth, the fact that they knew one another, and crafted a story around it. Both men were contemporaries and had occasion to travel in similar social circles from time to time. They also had a very public falling out over the subject of spiritualism. Conan Doyle was a firm believer while Houdini made it his mission to debunk so called practitioners. From that the author has created two characters that work as a perfect foil in a supernatural murder mystery.
The two men are from completely different worlds, have differing ideas about most things but still they respect each other’s opinion. They appear as almost the living embodiment of their respective countries. Conan Doyle is all stiff upper lips and ‘by jove’, the quintessential Brit abroad while Houdini is every inch the dapper American gent. Both are at the height of their respective professions and the verbal sparring between the two keeps things interesting. It’s a nice touch that there are two protagonists that don’t see eye to eye on every detail.
The supernatural elements are quite subtly handled. The references to Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction are handled well and have a suitably gothic air. I’m sure that anyone who has ever read Poe before will enjoy trying to spot the elements that come from his work.
There are a host of historic cameos, the likes of Buster Keaton, Damon Runyon and W.C. Fields all make an appearance. Runyon in particular is an enjoyable inclusion as the author sprinkles his dialogue with lots of twenties slang. This adds a nice air of authenticity to proceedings.
Is this the book for you? Well, if you’ve watched and enjoyed Boardwalk Empire then you’ll get a lot from this book. The sights and sounds of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ are vividly brought to life. Prohibition era New York is a city full of dodgy dives and larger than life characters, this is the home of speakeasies and prize fights. Hjorstberg obviously delights in describing the outlandish, opulent detail of what was a very decadent time. Add just a hint of the supernatural and you’ll find yourself with a riveting read.
Nevermore was released on ebook by Open Road Media on 12th March 2012.