BOOKS: Houdini just keeps on escaping

The Sword Cabinet by Robert Edric Anchor pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
Seventy-three years after his death in a work-related accident, the irrepressible Harry Houdini is alive and exercising the imagination of some of our best novelists. In The Houdini Girl, Martyn Bedford had an illusionist play games with his audience, diverting and misdirecting the reader until his performance came unstuck. Now Robert Edric puts the idea to a vastly different use. His protagonist Mitchell, himself a struggling showman, goes in search of his mother's secret pre-marital history and unearths her involvement with a whole clan of stage artistes. What follows is the complex tale of a murder investigation, a prying photographer, several broken hearts, and the story of escapologist Morgan King as he prepares to step into history by performing one of Houdini's most audacious routines.

The Sword Cabinet moves between Mitchell's inquiries into the events of 40 years ago, the events themselves, and his own climactic last performance in a shabby nightclub on the brink of receivership. Mitchell's research yields a family tree so eccentric as to be entirely convincing: Clarence the Cut-Price Cannonball, whose career ended when a massive heart attack caused him to fall short on his final flight; Starving Charlie King, who ate glass, nails and everything else; and Marvello Memory Man, whom Mitchell finds senile and blind to everything else apart from his memorised football results "and the tethering post of his own name".

But Edric is a serious writer, and is not here to poke fun. Having set himself such an unlikely band of characters, he succeeds in humanising them and their situation, all the while aware that the "dead rivers of history" in which they swam are all gone. Edric has a passion for laying bare aspects of human suffering - the indignity of failure, the iron in the soul of a performer past his prime - which might seem embarrassingly gauche to many of his contemporaries. He is at his best defending his characters and their professionalism against the sneering and the grubby accusations which accompanied them wherever they went. His mother, Mitchell begins to understand, may have had good reason to prefer her peripatetic life as a showman's assistant to domestic drudgery and marriage to a bureaucrat who in seven years won promotions "for which another man might have had to wait ten".

Written in short, epigrammatic chapters, The Sword Cabinet moves between past and present rather too quickly, often dizzying the reader. Occasionally, too, Edric's prose can look too weighty and portentous for its subject matter. Even Clarence the Cut-Price Cannonball, one suspects, might have blushed at Edric's epitaph: "He was a man. He was fired from a cannon. He died when his heart died". More effective is when he lets his performers speak for themselves, in the tetchy, spartan dialogue of those for whom the need to justify their actions does not come naturally, and who blink in the cold light of interrogation.

If there is an illusion which Edric seeks to unmask, it is that the recovery of some memories can yield easy catharsis, that some stories can be neatly unravelled with the benefit of hindsight. His moral seems to be that some of the powerful emotions are best left beneath the surface, and his warning against those who would "inhabit the waste of the past and wander there in ever decreasing circles". The Sword Cabinet leaves the reader taking stock, slightly baffled but charmed enough to want to see it done all over again.