Breaking the spell: How did a quiet anthropologist infiltrate Paris's secretive Magic Circle?

With sleight of hand and lots of luck, Graham Jones tells Mark Piesing

Graham Jones might not have been able to pull a rabbit out of a hat at a kids' party, but he was going to have to make a pain au chocolat appear from nowhere for the Magic Circle of Paris. For five months, the softly spoken anthropologist from MIT, who hadn't performed a magic trick since he was a child, worked hard to master the techniques needed to predict, Derren Brown-style, the pastry someone would choose and to build the props to make the chosen pastry appear on command in front of some of France's greatest magicians.

At stake was an attempt to infiltrate the secret world of magic in Paris, the birthplace of modern magic and the only place in the world where magicians are subsidised by the state.

"I had originally imagined that I could just go up and ask the magicians questions," he says. "But they weren't willing to talk to me because – I realised – magicians form relationships by exchanging secrets and knowledge, and I had none of my own. So I had to become someone who had something to give as well. And it was a big struggle for me as I didn't have that desire to stay up all night working on a single sleight-of-hand movement – I just wanted to use it as my passport into their world."

Now his book Trade of the Tricks: Inside the Magician's Craft seeks to explain what he uncovered behind the magic curtain during the almost two years he spent in Paris. By following some of the world's leading magicians and fully participating in the scene as a kind of sorcerer's apprentice, he shines a light on a male-dominated community that is often trivialised in mainstream culture and yet whose members, he believes, display "a level of specialised knowledge comparable to the James Dysons and Steve Jobses of this world" in a "complex community" of "frenemies" whose sense of a shared identity is built rather perversely on the keeping, sharing and betraying – and destroying – of each other's secrets.

For Jones, the publication of the book marked an end to a journey that had started 10 years before in the rubble of 9/11. "After seeing the towers collapse from Washington State Park and the American war machine gear up, I became really pessimistic about human nature," he says. "And suddenly it seemed important to me to write about something fun and life-affirming and a little bit escapist, too. It was at that moment that I discovered magic."

And for the multilingual anthropologist, Paris was the place to study magic from the inside, as the history and traditions of its scene set it apart from the famous Magic Circle in London, the innovative scene in Madrid and even the big shows in Las Vegas – as did the monthly subsidy paid by the French government in recognition of the magician's role as an artist rather than just an entertainer.

In the end, Jones feels that "he got fairly deep" into the secret world of magicians despite the fact that "anthropologists don't go undercover but try and blend in" and that he hadn't performed a trick of any kind since he was six or seven. But blending in was a trick in its own right in a factional scene that one magician described as "a little world, with its stars, leaders and groups, along with little 'wars' between them".

Jones says: "I told everyone that I was writing a dissertation about magic, but very few people had a realistic idea of what this meant. I think most people saw me as a novice magician who also happened to be a student writing a dissertation about magic. And that was a comfortable role for me because it meant I didn't stand out much or, if I did, only because of my poor magic skills."

He admits that in some ways he only just scratched the surface of the community. "The ability to really appreciate their expertise takes years of study, six to eight hours a day. And even then, only when you have lived and breathed it for decades can you really understand it."

David Stone only realised just what a "perfect spy for a secret world" Graham had been when he read the book. Stone, one of France's youngest and most popular magicians who has two best-selling videos to his name, says: "We did more or less know he was working on what we call un mémoire for a university, but because he got to know everyone we quickly forgot the fact he wasn't a magician. And as most magicians are pretty self-centred and Graham is a good listener, you can understand why most magicians also forgot after a while that he was here to study them."

For Philippe Day, another regular professional magician on the Paris scene, Jones became a sort of magic psychoanalyst to the community and was able, in the end, to dig quite deep.

"It was a pleasure to have long conversations with him as he was the kind of guy who could teach you a lot by asking you questions and making you tell him answers that you didn't know you had in your mind," Day says. "He got to know some of the greatest theorists we have and had access to any secret as every door was open to him." At least, he adds somewhat mysteriously, "the doors most useful for his research".

Jones, though, is only the latest writer since Alciphron in the second century to be fascinated by magic and, on one level, it is not hard to understand why. After all, the same cup-and-balls trick that Alciphron wrote about almost 2,000 years ago can still be seen on our streets today.

Beyond that, Alfred Binet, the French psychologist and inventor of the IQ test, in the 19th century put our fascination with magic down to the need "to be fooled, to experience surprise, that slight mental fluster that comes from seeing a violation of natural law", whereas the magician Paul Curry a few decades later thought it was due to the need to satisfy man's constant curiosity. More modern writers, such as Jones, suggest that it is the the need to find a place for enchantment and wonder in our cynical age, or even just the desire to experience unmediated entertainment in the age of The X Factor.

Whatever the reasons, while in the past many famous names from Thomas Mann to Roland Barthes have written about magic and magicians almost in passing, a new wave of historians and social scientists have been stumbling towards a kind of "ology" of magic, where it is seen as a form of entertainment, or even art, to be analysed in its own right, rather than an extension of occult belief.

Yet despite being poked and prodded by the outside world for millennia, magicians have largely ignored what the outside world has had to say about them and have carried on researching and documenting the history of magic to an almost obsessive extent – whether the development of a particular technique or the biography of a long-dead magician. And the outside world has, in turn, largely ignored what magicians have to say for themselves.

Some of the magicians featured in Trade of the Tricks hope that this book might break down the barriers between the two worlds.

Up on the stage, the trick went well and in the applause Jones felt that he had "gone native", crossing the line between layman and magician, outsider and insider. Later he found himself even playing with concealment and revelation by teaching new magicians the technique of his trick, but not the handling that actually makes it work.

Yet at that moment of his personal triumph, the magic scene is a community in crisis. "The future is uncertain because the magic shops have been devastated by the web and, as you can buy professional props online, you can become a magician without having to participate in this shared community that is so vital for the profession, but which can be so intimidating to outsiders," he says. "For a community based on the sharing of secrets and the shared identity that goes along with it, this potential atomisation is troubling to many magicians. As is the inability to keep secrets and control who to share them with."

But this great leveling may mean that magic can start to move away from its "boys' toys" reputation to make the Magic Circle an ever-more inclusive one.

'Trade of The Tricks' by Graham Jones is out on October 28 (University of California Press)