Author: William Hjortsberg
Published: first published in 1994; this eBook edition published 13 March 2012
Publisher: First published by Atlantic Monthly Press. This eBook edition published by Open Road Media
Genre: metafiction, historical, murder mystery, fantasy
Source: review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
It’s the year 1923. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famed creator of Sherlock Holmes, is embarking on a United States tour to give a series of lectures on spiritualism. The author is an ardent believer in psychic powers, and frequently takes part in séances for communicating with the dead. In New York, Doyle meets up with his friend Harry Houdini, the famous vaudeville magician and escape artist. Unlike Doyle, Houdini believes spiritualism is bunk, and he makes every effort to expose mediums and other psychics as frauds, putting a strain on his relationship with the author. However, Houdini’s scepticism is challenged by Opal Crosby Fletcher, a stunningly beautiful, staggeringly wealthy young widow who appears to be a true psychic.
During Doyle’s tour, a New York murderer is killing people in an imitation of Edgar Allen Poe’s grisly tales. It’s assumed that the murders are the random outbursts of a lunatic, but Houdini later realises that the victims were all linked to him in some way, and the killer is moving closer to him and the people he cares about. The ghost of Edgar Allen Poe starts appearing in Doyle’s hotel rooms; an inexplicable phenomenon that Doyle can’t help but connect to the murders. Eventually both he and Houdini have to work together to track down the killer before they’re brought to a gruesome literary demise.
Historical drama, mystery, fantasy and metafiction – this makes Nevermore cross-genre fiction, but unfortunately it doesn’t combine these genres as fluidly. The result is that it reads like a historical drama interrupted by a murder mystery, with fantasy wandering around aimlessly throughout.
The murder mystery is, at first, the driving force behind the plot. The use of Poe’s stories makes the discovery of bodies bizarre and intriguing events. And of course there’s the question of why the killer uses Poe’s stories. Sadly, your interest will be met with disappointment. The mystery is often treated as a subplot, with the narrative focusing on Houdini and Doyle as they go about their professional and personal lives. For a while the crimes are little more than news stories to them.
As a type of story, murder mysteries typically thrive on the investigation process, but in this case the reader is not privy to the clues found by the police. There are a few passages that are written from the perspectives of law enforcement officials connected to the case, but none of them are major characters and they have little to offer. When Doyle and Houdini eventually turn their attention to the murders, they mostly do so as laymen, using whatever scraps of information they’ve gathered from the media, along with a few personal experiences. You’d think that Doyle’s experience writing Sherlock Holmes stories would come into play here, but it doesn’t really. At one point their entire ‘investigation’ hinges on suspicion and a facial expression. But of course they manage to learn more than the police, who appear not to have made the slightest bit of progress (not that we’d be told about it) in the months since the first murder. It’s very contrived.
Most of the fantasy elements in the book seem largely unnecessary. Poe’s manifestations keep Doyle in mind of the murders, but otherwise have no real effect on the story. Doyle asks him for advice regarding the investigation, but the very depressed Poe has none to offer. There’s also a weird little detail about Poe that really bugged me. Whenever Poe appears, Doyle refers to him as a ghost or a dead man, while Poe insists that he is alive and that Doyle appears to him as a ghost. It seems pretty obvious to me that neither is seeing a ‘ghost’ but are somehow connecting to each other through time. However, this idea never occurs to Doyle, and as a result he keeps wondering if his ideas about the afterlife are all wrong, since Poe doesn’t think he’s dead and at one point he even vomits (the dead aren’t supposed to suffer from nausea). The man who created Sherlock Holmes and his intricately detailed investigations is suddenly far too daft to consider the evidence and come up with a better theory.
There’s a second fantasy element in the rather odd character of Opal. As I mentioned, she’s a true psychic. This makes perfect sense for the spiritualism aspect of the plot. However, Opal also claims to be the reincarnation of the goddess Isis, and believes Houdini to be the reincarnation of the god Osiris, Isis’ husband. She takes an unnerving interest in him, leading to a weird sex scene featuring a dildo filled with warm milk. As with the Poe appearances, I’m don’t know what purpose this Isis/Osiris thing is supposed to serve.
The historical drama is the strongest aspect of the story. It seems that Hjortsberg put a lot of research into his depiction of Doyle and Houdini. We learn a lot about Houdini’s work as a magician and escape artist. The relationship between Doyle and Houdini is based on fact, as are their beliefs regarding spiritualism. In fact, their difference in opinion eventually ruined their friendship. In the novel, tension arises after Doyle’s wife invites Houdini to a séance where she claims to put him in contact with his deceased mother.
Hjortsberg also goes into great detail depicting New York and other American cities in the 1920s. He does an admirable job, but it can get tiresome. There are too many references to the streets, brand names and music of the time, most of which would be meaningless to most readers now. It can get confusing if you don’t know what item a character is using or what the reference to a song or address is supposed to imply. There are also scenes depicting what I assume are actual events, like sports matches and the public murder of a gangster. Annoyingly, these things feel like time-wasting props – they’re meant to lend a sense of authenticity to the novel, but they’re irrelevant to the story.
Nevertheless, I feel that if Hjortsberg has chosen to cut the murder plot and focus solely on the historical aspects of the story, specifically the friendship between Doyle and Houdini, their beliefs and the consequences thereof, then this would have been a stronger book. The fantasy element could either have been ambiguous, or refined for a better fit. We could have taken a closer look at the psychologies of the characters. Houdini is particularly interesting in this regard, because he actually wants to find a genuine psychic so that he may speak to his “sainted mother” once again (the man has issues). He wants very badly to believe in the abilities that he frequently mocks and exposes as fraud. Opal’s power forces Houdini to accept that contact with the dead is possible, and it would have been interesting to explore the character dynamics here a bit more, while scrapping that pointless Isis/Osiris business.
As it stands, Nevermore tries to be too many things at once, and fails to excel at any of them. The result is a book that feels arbitrary and is largely quite boring. It doesn’t help that there are also a lot of info dumps and unnecessary scenes and characters. When the story is eventually wrapped up, the plot is paper thin and thoroughly unsatisfying. It’s such a pity; it all sounded like quite a good idea.