by Walter Satterthwait

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

St. Martin's, New York; 1995

355 pages July 2009


Suppose you have a mystery of the locked-room type, and Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist, is at the scene? Now suppose this is in an ancient manor house with a family ghost, and Arthur Conan Doyle, not only the creator of Sherlock Holmes but in later life a dedicated spiritualist, also is present? These are the two historical characters at hand in Walter Satterthwait's novel Escapade, set in England in 1921.

The novel alternates two viewpoint characters: Phil Beaumont, a young man hired in America as bodyguard to Houdini after a couple of apparent assassination attempts by a rival stage magician. Beaumont has a solid, matter-of-fact personality, appreciated by Houdini but not fitting in too smoothly at the house party at Maplewhite in Devon; the gathering centers around a seance conducted by a medium of Doyle's acquaintance.

Our other viewpoint, and contrasting voice, is that of Jane Turner, a young woman who is a paid lady's companion to one of the house guests. Turner's observations and opinions flow out in chatty letters posted to her best girlfriend. What she sees, and cares about, are generally at divergent angles to Beaumont's awareness. A simple example is the contrast between the profusion of carpets crossed by the plain American, versus the exquisite Oriental carpets that Jane Porter appreciates. Of course their personalities and background also clash in understanding people and events, which is far more striking and important.

I really like these two crossed viewpoints with their distinctive voices; and the other characters have interesting roles and foibles and opinions, as well as the hidden knowledge and interests constituent to a spirited mystery and detection. Satterthwait's portrait of Houdini is quite vivid.

Walter Satterthwait also has some play with sexual mores: flirtations welcome and unwelcome, propositions with handcuffs or riding crop, even a scary dream of a rampant ghost. I don't think there's anything in Escapade to offend tender sensibilities, but this surely adds to the enjoyment of discerning readers. Sexual attraction, or escape from one-sided attraction, is built into the careful structure of the novel, as the different perceptions and evaluations ravel and tangle and eventually unwind.

Escapade perhaps ends a little abruptly, in that we feel that Phil Beaumont and Jane Porter could have quite a bit more to say, particularly to each other; but there are Pinkerton agency sequels: Masquerade and Cavalcade. These lack the great central presence of Houdini, are less light-hearted overall, more suspense than mystery, skating across the slippery territory of the sexual underground and its relation to crime and politics. Masquerade is across the Channel in France in 1923, among Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and others of the Lost Generation. Cavalcade, an immediate sequel, then ventures into Germany of hyper-inflation, Freikorps, the fledgling Nazi Party — among Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl, Ernst Roehm, Alfred Rosenberg, and other Nazi mal-luminaries.

As a mystery novel Escapade stands very well by itself, and I enjoyed it even more upon re-reading: whether as stage trick, or voice from Beyond, or manor-house escapade, that's quite a nice feat.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson

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