With magicians being renowned as practitioners of misdirection and Vanishing canonically one of the ten types of impossible crime, you’re damn right I picked up twelfth Ken Holt book The Mystery of the Vanishing Magician (1958) by husband-and-wife team Sam and Beryl Epstein expecting some impossible shenanigans.
It is to be noted, then, that Magnus the Magician just about lives up to expectations when, in the first chapter, he vanishes from a sealed trunk while handcuffed and fails to materialise in a second sealed trunk as promised. It’s revealed almost immediately that he “crawled out from under [a] curtain” behind the trunk in which he’d been tied and, claiming illness, made his way to his car and drove off. And when it’s reported that the disappearing gentleman crashed his car and is in serious condition in hospital…well, the mystery deepens. See, Bert Allen is convinced that “Magnus” is none other than Chris Bell, who saved Bert’s life on a skiing trip several years previously, but he had denied this when confronted by Bert. To back this up, the man’s driving licence bears the name Edmond Albert, but then it transpires that Chris Bell is wanted for a robbery which took place some years ago…and suddenly no-one is sure what to believe,
Yup, the first two chapters of this book are pretty wild.
What follows isn’t bad by any means, but — much as The Mystery of Holly Lane (1953), the eleventh book in the Five Find-Outers series by Enid Blyton, left me somewhat underwhelmed a few weeks back — I could find very little here to get too enthused about. Maybe there’s something about this era of writing for younger readers, but this felt decidedly less invigorating than the best of the Ken Holts I’ve read (the absolute garbage fire that was The Mystery of the Grinning Tiger (1956), my previous experience with this series, wouldn’t have helped matters) and I just couldn’t get enthused about the plot or the characters involved. The case against Bell gets more and more grim, but you never doubt for a second that he’ll prove to be innocent and some simple restatement of the problem will see him freed and then some sort of exciting action finale — a feature of the series — will drag out the last third or so of the book, seeing the real criminals caught and punished. It was difficult to care.
And then Chris Bell wakes up and the book comes wonderfully to life. For about five chapters.
The core of the book revolves around how Bell’s version of events differs from the accepted version, and how that goes on to feed into another borderline-impossible problem of its own: the theft of the jewellery that Bell didn’t steal but which nonetheless went missing. Ken and Sandy Allen kick around theories, get shot down, kick around more theories, get shot down again, and eventually uncover the moderately clever scheme which saw the theft pulled off. It’s a more rigorous experience than I’ve had in this series of a little while, and a shame that it comes after such a drawn out beginning and before such a generic ending.
The peril which Ken and Sandy face in the closing stages of the likes of The Mystery of the Iron Box (1952) or The Clue of the Phantom Car (1953) is bracing, suffocating, and fraught with genuine peril and stakes. Here…meh. Chase, chase, threaten, threaten, escape…you can feel the rails guiding everything, and a sort of palpable exhausiotn on the authors’ behalfs that they’re once again back at this well trying to cram in enough on the nose dialogue to explain away everything while also a little unsure of quite how to tie this whole shebang up. Given how successfully and brilliantly the Epsteins wrote at their best, it really does feel like we’re running on fumes a little here and they would like to be done with the whole thing. It begs the question of why they didn’t find another way to end their book, but maybe it was an accepted part of the series by this stage and they were simply fulfilling obligations.
So, well, this might mark the end of the road for me ‘n’ Ken Holt. I’ll certainly take a loooong break from the series before returning to it (easily done, since I don’t own any more of them), and maybe in a couple of years another middle-series title like The Mystery of the Galloping Horse (1954) or The Mystery of the Green Flame (1955) will call to me. I have a feeling the earlier titles might be less confident and the later ones less well-developed, but who’s to say? A break, a re-evaluation of what I want from my Junior Fiction, and an immersion in more contemporary writers might leave me yearning for the earnestness of Ken, Sandy, and Co., but right now it feels like time to put them away.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Unfortunately, the original locked room premise and its clever explanation also betrayed that The Mystery of the Vanishing Magician reads like an expended short story, because the whole plot hinges on the locked room-trick, but luckily, the Epsteins knew how to write – which is why I didn’t notice it until well towards the end. But looking back on it, the plot is a bit of a patchwork.
The Ken Holt books by ‘Bruce Campbell’:
1. The Secret of Skeleton Island (1949)
2. The Riddle of the Stone Elephant (1949)
3. The Black Thumb Mystery (1950)
4. The Clue of the Marked Claw (1950)
5. The Clue of the Coiled Cobra (1951)
6. The Secret of Hangman’s Inn (1951)
7. The Mystery of the Iron Box (1952)
8. The Clue of the Phantom Car (1953)
9. The Mystery of the Galloping Horse (1954)
10. The Mystery of the Green Flame (1955)
11. The Mystery of the Grinning Tiger (1956)
12. The Mystery of the Vanishing Magician (1956)
13. The Mystery of the Shattered Glass (1958)
14. The Mystery of the Invisible Enemy (1959)
15. The Mystery of Gallows Cliff (1960)
16. The Clue of the Silver Scorpion (1961)
17. The Mystery of the Plumed Serpent (1962)
18. The Mystery of the Sultan’s Scimitar (1963)