It’s an Illusion, It’s a Game*

Penn and TellerHave you ever been to a magic show? I mean a really well-done show. We all know going into a show that the magician really cannot, for instance, turn water into coins. But a talented magician can make the audience believe even if it’s just for a moment that a handkerchief turned into flowers. Magicians use misdirection and other strategies to create illusions. And when they do it well, it takes all of one’s effort to remember that it isn’t real.

We see that same use of strategy to create illusion in crime fiction. I’m not referring here to things like faking an alibi. Rather, I mean strategies that make people believe that something they think they see is true, while the reality is something entirely different. And when you get people to think that something is true, they are often convinced – even to the point of testifying in court – that they are right. And that fact of human life can be useful to criminals.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. Edgware’s wife Jane Wilkinson is the most likely suspect. It’s well-known that she wanted a divorce from her husband so that she could marry again. She’s even approached Poirot to try to convince Edgware to withdraw his objection to the divorce. What’s more, she was heard to threaten her husband. And she was admitted to the house on the night of the murder. So at first, Chief Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp believes that he’s got his culprit. But on the night of the murder Jane Wilkinson went to a dinner party in another part of London. Twelve people, including the host, are willing to swear in court that she was at the party. So Poirot, Hastings and Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. And they find plenty of suspects too, as Edgware was an extremely unpleasant person. In the end Poirot finds out who the killer is and we get a first-class lesson in the power of illusion.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives introduces us to attorney Walter Eberhart, his wife Joanna and their two children Pete and Kim. The Eberharts decide to move from New York to the beautiful and quiet town of Stepford, Connecticut and at first all goes well. They are warmly welcomed and the children soon settle into school and start to make friends. But soon, Joanna begins to think that something odd is going on in Stepfored. She and her new friend Bobbie Markowe ask a few questions, but they don’t get clear answers. Besides, there is no obvious danger to them or their families. Then, disturbing things begin to happen and Joanna becomes more and more convinced that Stepford’s beauty, peace and quiet are illusions. She begins to believe that something truly sinister is going on in town. It turns out that she’s right.

We also see the use of illusion strategies in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move Science fiction writer Zack Walker, his journalist wife Sarah and their children Angie and Paul move to a beautiful new housing development called Valley Forest Estates. Zack is hoping that the lower cost of living in the suburbs will mean that he can write full-time, and he’s utterly convinced that life in the suburbs will be safer than it is in the city where they lived before the move. But little by little, his illusion of the ‘perfect suburban life’ is shattered. First, the house itself has all sorts of structural and other problems and Zack can’t seem to get anyone in authority to respond to his requests for maintenance. Then he discovers the body of Samuel Spender, a local environmental activist, in a creek. Then there’s another murder. Little by little Zack discovers that the development has mostly been a carefully orchestrated illusion designed to cover up some nasty goings-on. It’s not until Zack puts aside his belief that life is safer in the suburbs that he’s really able to see what’s happening.

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine also includes the use of illusion to cover up a crime. Mallory Lawson and his wife Kate move to the village of Forbes Abbot when Mallory’s wealthy Aunt Carey dies. Aunt Carey has left her home and much of her fortune to Mallory and his family on the condition that her former companion Benny Frayle will always have a home. Mallory and Kate are happy to agree to that and everyone settles into the new arrangement. Then, the Lawsons’ financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed in what looks like a very tragic accident. But Benny thinks it was murder and tries to get the police to investigate. No-one takes very much notice of her allegation until there’s another death. Self-styled medium Ava Garret is leading a séance one day; during the event she says some things about the murder that she couldn’t possibly know. Not long afterwards she’s poisoned. Now Inspector Tom Barnaby and his team re-open the Dennis Brinkley case and slowly link it to Ava Garret’s murder. In a sad irony, Ava’s determination to maintain the illusion that she is psychic costs her her life as the murderer uses what you could call an illusion against her.

There’s an effective use of illusion in Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s Toffee’s Christmas too. In that short story, an author of romance novels who calls herself Toffee Brown moves to the small Yorkshire village of Knavesborough. As she tells the local vicar’s daughter Rhapsody Gershwin, Toffee came to the village to get some rest. Although she’s very eccentric and rather put out at not being identified as the world-famous writer she is, Toffee becomes a part of village life and settles in. Then one day, Rhapsody and her sister Psalmonella discover Toffee’s body in the cottage she’s taken. Rhapsody’s fiancé local constable Archibald ‘Archie’ Primrose begins to investigate and in the process they learn what Toffee’s real identity was. That doesn’t bring them much closer to finding the murderer though. It’s not until Rhapsody discovers that another character has created an illusion that she and her fiancé catch the killer.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives is mostly set in the compound of a polygamous sect called Purity. The sect has been run by Brother Solomon Royal until he is murdered. Private investigator Lena Jones goes undercover to join Purity and find out who killed Royal when her client Esther Corbett is accused of the crime. Esther had a good motive for the murder too, as Royal had been planning to marry Esther’s thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca. Jones settles into Purity and begins to ask questions about Royal’s murder. What she finds is that Purity is hiding some truly ugly secrets. There’s been a very carefully-designed illusion of Purity as being a peaceful, happy group of people who help each other, meet the group’s needs in a self-sufficient way and raise the group’s children together. But the reality is far, far different. Jones discovers domestic abuse, child molestation, and intermarriage leading to some serious birth defects. She also discovers financial wrongdoing. In fact, the reality underneath the illusion of Purity is so awful that Jones finds it hard to focus on her main reason for being there. But she does discover who killed Solomon Royal and why.

The thing about well-crafted illusions is that they can be very convincing. And in crime fiction that ability to create a reality that isn’t there can be very useful to criminals. Of course, sleuths can create illusions too; maybe I’ll address that in another post…


ps.  The photos are of Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller, who make up the hugely popular and successful magician duo Penn and Teller. Not only are they dedicated to debunking fraudulent psychics and other fakes, but they are truly gifted illusionists themselves. Oh, and they’re as pleasant in person as you could wish for, despite their great success.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ Abacab.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Caroline Graham, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Ira Levin, Linwood Barclay

20 responses to “It’s an Illusion, It’s a Game*

  1. Fascinating and enjoyable article which is also informative and has given me food for thought. I have worked (in my former music career) with both magicians and clairvoyants – a long story – and have been amazed at how people are prepared to see and believe what is suggested, even going against the evidence of their own eyes. Working on a Chinese Musical in Singapore I was privileged to attend all the rehearsals of the cast which included a Father and Daughter Magic act, and saw how many of the ‘trick’s were done – sworn to secrecy at the time. Watching the audience during the show it was fascinating to see how they were persuaded so easily to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes. This also happened when doing a series of shows about Clairvoyants, Mediums and White Witches – another long story. People would be told all sorts of things which could really have applied to any one of us, and totally accepted that the ‘messages’ were for them alone despite the fact that any one in the audience could hold their hand up confidently, and admit to having an elderly aunt who had died and she used to like knitting! So I can totally relate to your article and want to thank you for reminding me of some of the past events I have experience and almost forgotten. Jx

    • Jane – Thank you for the kind words 🙂 – You have really had fascinating experiences! I’m sure it must have amazed you to see what people were willing to believe, despite rational evidence telling them otherwise. That is, as you know, the whole point of a successful magic or clairvoyant act – to get people to see and hear and think what one wants. That’s what creates the effect. And what’s even more amazing to me is that even people like us who know it’s all an illusion can still get caught up in the moment when a talented illusionist takes the stage. I’ve always thought it was psychologically absolutely fascinating. Thanks very much for sharing your stories.

  2. Fab analysis, Margot! I love illusions done well. 😀

  3. Margot, you’ve really hit home with this one, because – as I think you know – my favorite mysteries are of the locked room/impossible crime variety, and, when well done, they invariably require an illusionist’s skill to create and maintain. The greatest of all, surely, was John Dickson Carr. In what I still think is his best book, “The Three Coffins,” (known in the UK as “The Hollow Man”), Carr issues this challenge in THE OPENING PARAGRAPH of the book:

    “To the murder of Professor Grimaud, and later the equally incredible crime in Cagliostro Street, many fantastic terms could be applied — with reason.(…) (T)wo murders were committed, in such fashion that the murderer must not only have been invisible, but lighter than air. According to the evidence, this person killed his first victim and literally disappeared. Again according to the evidence, he killed his second victim in the middle of an empty street, with watchers at either end; yet not a soul saw him, and no footprint appeared in the snow.”

    Now if THAT doesn’t capture the reader, nothing will. And, of course, Carr provides a fairly-clued solution. Far-fetched? Sure. But all of “magic” is far-fetched; that’s why magicians never explain their tricks, because we can’t believe we were fooled so easily or so completely!

    • Les – You know, I almost mentioned the ‘locked-room’ sub-genre. But in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t. You’ve provided such a wonderful example with The Three Coffins that I couldn’t match it. And Carr was the (to me) undisputed master of the impossible mystery. It’s all about getting people to believe what one wants them to believe and oh, my, could Carr do that. Thanks too for sharing that paragraph. What a great hook it is, isn’t it? Folks, if you haven’t tried The Three Coffins, do yourself a favour and read it. It’s a great example of the way illusions can be used skillfully.

  4. Margot: One of my favourite books in the Lincoln Rhyme series by Jeffery Deaver is The Vanished Man. The conjurer, Malerick, uses illusions and deceptions that are positively fiendish. I had never known about lightning changes of clothes or what is possible with a simple black cloth before reading the book.

    • Bill – Oh, thanks for that suggestion. That’s one of the Lincoln Rhymes that I’ve not read and it sure sounds as though I should. How very interesting! Going ‘behind the scenes’ with what conjurers do is really interesting in and of itself, let alone adding in a solid mystery. Something I need to add to my reading list.

  5. I didn’t know Penn and Teller had a mission to expose frauds. They’re interesting guys.

    • Pat – Oh, I think they’re really interesting too – and professionally at the top of their trade. They are, among other things, determined that people will not use illusion to hurt others (e.g. the fake psychic who leads people to believe that they can communicate with a loved one who has died and charges them money). And their message in their act is more or less, ‘We’re about to show you some amazing illusions. You know this is fake and we do too. We’re not going tell you how we do our tricks but watch and you’ll see how cool this is!’

  6. I love those pictures Margot. I know it’s not magic but Sherlock Holmes’s disguises always have the touch of magic about them, especially when he manages to dupe Watson. The discussion on clairvoyants reminds me of Miss Climpson’s turn in ‘Strong Poison’ which is actually very funny. Firmly tongue in cheek by High Church Anglican Sayers.

    • Sarah – Oh, yes! I loved that scene in Strong Poison! Thanks for reminding me of it. It is indeed a terrific example of using illusion and yes, great tongue-in-cheek. And it’s funny; Holmes’ disguises and deductions seem like magic although we know it isn’t. He is able to dupe Watson and more than once, he makes statements about people and no-one can imagine how he knew what he knows. That’s almost magical itself until he tells us how simple it was.
      Thanks for the kind words about the ‘photos. I have to say, both gentlemen were really pleasant and accommodating about posing with fans. And the show? Spectacular.

  7. I shall be back; enjoyed reading everyone’s comments too.

  8. According to Orson Welles boys love magic a lot more than girls but I’m glad you like it too! It can work so well in fiction – I love Carr and Rawson for their ability to synthesise magic and misdirection with storytelling – Richard Matheson’s NOW YOU SEE IT … is perhaps a bit less successful but worth a look as it is full of stage trickery (it was a novelisation of a an earlier play of his in fact). And I really envy you meeting Penn & Teller, I love those guys – I had no idea there were so HUGE though!

    • Sergio – Oh, I like Penn and Teller too, very much. And – erm – part of it is that Penn Jillette is really big. Part is that I’m awfully small… Thanks too for the suggestion of the Matheson. That’s one I confess I haven’t read, but it sounds interesting just from your few words about it. And yes indeed, Carr and Rawson were masters of the misdirection and sleight-of-hand in novels. Folks, dip into their work if you haven’t yet.

      • I love those photos of you with them – they have done a number of shows here in the UK over the years and I do love the fact that they are even prepared to reveal how some of the effects are achieved and then go on to bamboozle you with something that seems to truly defy explanation!

        • Sergio – Thank you 🙂 – And I couldn’t agree more about the way Penn and Teller do their shows. They tell the audience enough that they’re ‘playing fair’ (i.e. What we are about to do is fake; we are not supernatural beings). At the same time though, they’re so talented that you marvel at what they can do.

  9. At the risk of overstaying my welcome, Margot :-), I have to recommend one other book to you where illusion may be everything: “Rim of the Pit,” by Hake Talbot. It’s a first-rate “impossible crimes” mystery, set at a snowbound lodge and cabin right near the Canadian border, with a frightening seance, murders that appear to have been committed by an evil spirit, footprints that begin and end in fields of unbroken snow, escapes from locked rooms, even a huge, flying…something that pursues and perhaps kills. The opening line of the book sets it up beautifully: “I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.”

    The atmospherics are worthy of Carr at his best, which, as you know, is saying a lot – and the solutions and explanations are satisfying, for the reader will have been convinced that the events he/she has witnessed had to have supernatural causes. Are they illusions? Read it and find out. Ramble House has republished it, complete with a back-cover map of the scene of the crime, and I recommend it very very highly.

    • Les – First, you are welcome here any time, and feel free to stay as long as you wish; as the saying goes, estás en tu casa (You’re in your house). It means in this case, more or less, treat my blog as though it were your own. And thanks for the terrific suggestion. I’d heard of Rim of the Pit, but not read it. I am now amending that to say, ‘not read it yet.’ It’s exactly the kind of mystery I had in mind when I wrote this post, and I really like that opening line. Another to add to the list… And in a related note, it’s so good to hear that imprints like Ramble House are bringing back those terrific reads.

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