It’s Only an Illusion*

In Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, a series of mysterious deaths is associated with the excavation of an important ancient tomb. More than one person believes that those deaths happened because there’s a curse on anyone who disturbs the tomb. Hercule Poirot looks into the matter, and finds a very prosaic explanation for the deaths. He himself doesn’t believe in spiritualism or ancient curses. But he does say this:

‘Once get it firmly established that a series of deaths are supernatural, and you might almost stab a man in broad daylight, and it would still be put down to the curse, so strongly is the instinct of the supernatural implanted in the human race.’

And he has a point. Millions of people believe in the supernatural, or at least want very badly to believe. And that makes them vulnerable to charlatans and cheats.

There are plenty of people out there, though, who make it their business to call out those charlatans. One of those was Harry Houdini, born Erich Weiss, whose 143rd birthday would have been today, as this is posted. Houdini was a skilled magician who knew all of the ‘tricks of the trade’ for getting people to believe they saw whatever he wanted them to believe they saw. But he knew it was all illusion – all deception. And he was determined that others wouldn’t prey on the vulnerable.

He’s not the only one, either, at least not in crime fiction. In Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, for instance, we are introduced to Svetozar Vok. He’s a well-known and successful stage magician, who’s taken to unmasking fake mediums and spiritualists. So, he’s very interested in the proceedings when Frank and Irene Ogden, together with Frank’s business partner Luke Latham, decide to hold a séance. Their purpose is to contact Irene’s first husband, French émigré Grimaud Désanat. Irene is a medium, so it’s decided to hold the séance at the Ogden home, and invite several other people, including Vok. The séance is held, and is truly eerie. But shortly afterwards, Vok exposes Irene as a fake. Even so, there are things about the event that can’t be explained. Later that night, Irene is found dead. Does the death have a supernatural explanation? If not, then who among the group is the murderer?

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we meet Dr. Suresh Jha, founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.). A devotee of scientific research, he has dedicated himself to debunking spiritual charlatans and others who claim paranormal power. One morning, Jha attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when an extraordinary event occurs. As witnesses later tell the police, the goddess Kali appears, and stabs Jha. Believes claim that she did so as a punishment for Jha’s infidelity and for his leading others away from worship. And, in fact, the death leads to a resurgence of interest in matters religious. But Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri isn’t sure this death is what it seems. He has spiritual beliefs of his own, but he doesn’t really believe in paranormal explanations for murder. Since Jha was once a client of his, Puri takes an interest in the case and begins asking questions. And he soon learns that more than one person had a good reason for wanting Jha dead.

There’s also Alan Russell’s The Fat Innkeeper. Am Coulfield is house detective at San Diego’s very upmarket Hotel California. He has enough on his hands when the hotel is bought by a Japanese firm. But then, disaster strikes. The hotel has been playing host to a Union of Near Death Experiences Retreat, and several New Age mentalists are present. Also staying at the hotel is Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, who’s made a career out of unmasking fraudulent mentalists. And he’s targeted some of the people who are at the retreat. So, when Kingsbury is poisoned, there are plenty of suspects for Coulfield to consider.

Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief sees Venice’s Commissario Guido Brunetti serve as a sort of debunker. His second-in-command, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello comes to him with a family problem. It seems that Vianello’s aunt, Zia Anita, has been withdrawing money from the family business and giving it to a man named Stefano Gorini. The money is hers to do with as she wishes, so she’s not stealing. But Vianello is concerned that Gorini is cheating her. So, he asks Brunetti to look into the matter. Brunetti agrees and starts doing a little research into Gorini. He finds that the man has been in trouble with the law before over matters of possible fraud. In fact, he lost his medical license. Now, it seems he’s back, once more taking money for what seem to be fake cures. And Brunetti will need to find a way to stop Gorini before more people are bilked.  

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto. He’s a magician who lives and works in the 1950’s UK. He may not be known all over the world, but he knows what he’s doing onstage. And those skills were important during WWII, when Mephisto was one of the Magic Men, a special-operations group that used their stage tricks to fool the enemy. Now that the war’s over, Mephisto is ‘on the circuit’ with circus performers, fortune tellers and the like. He works with a fellow former Magic Man, DI Edgar Stephens, and his expertise turns out to be very useful. Mephisto may not be specifically committed to unmasking charlatans. But he certainly knows that murders don’t happen by magic, and he helps to unwrap the layers of fakery, and get to the truth.

And that’s exactly what Houdini did. He’s no longer with us, but his brilliance on stage, and his commitment to keeping people from being hoodwinked, will be remembered. He’s also inspired generations of illusionists since his time.


The ‘photo is of two of those illusionists, Penn Jillette and his magic partner, Raymond Teller. Both are outstanding, world-class illusionists. And both are committed, as Houdini was, to uncovering fraud and charlatanism. In fact, in their shows, Jillette, the ‘voice of the duo,’ often tells members of the audience that the pair is going to use trickery to confuse them. He then reminds the audience that it’s all sleight-of-hand and other illusion. But it still works. Gentlemen, if you’re reading this, I’m sure Houdini would have been proud to be your colleague.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Uriah Heep’s Illusion.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Russell, Donna Leon, Elly Griffiths, Hake Talbot, Tarquin Hall

17 responses to “It’s Only an Illusion*

  1. Met Penn and Teller in Vegas years ago… Two really nice guys! and GREAT illusionists!

    • Lucky you to have met them, Annette! I found them to be very pleasant, too. And with all of their success, you might have expected them to be rude to fans, but they’re the exact opposite. And, yes, master illusionists. Even when they tell you they’re going to mess with your mind….they do!

  2. Christopher Priest’s The Prestige (which was also turned into an excellent film) concerns two rival illusionists, and the lengths to which they will go, including trying to debunk each other. Although not described as a crime story, there are mysteries at its heart, and the plot is as well-worked-out as the best crime fiction…

    • You know, Moira, I’ve heard of that one, but haven’t read it. It does sound good, though, and I really like that extra tension of the two of them going after each other. I’m going to have to put that on my wish list, no doubt.

  3. Margot: I thought of The Vanished Man by Jeffery Deaver in which the master illusionist, Malerick, is a wicked foe for Lincoln Rhyme. His skill at quick changes of clothes is stunning.

    • Thanks, Bill. That’s exactly the sort of thing I had in mind when I was planning this post. And, as I think about it, an illusionist would be a very interesting antagonist just because of those skills.

  4. Margot, this is an interesting theme, especially since I often read in newspapers about heated debates between those who believe in science and those who swear by superstition. Rationalists are regularly at the receiving end. Education does not necessarily make one wiser or saner. I don’t remember what it’s called but I have seen a few episodes of the Penn Jillette-Raymond Teller show on TV. I thought it was pretty good.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Prashant. I agree with you that education doesn’t equal wisdom or sanity. As for Penn and Teller, they’ve had a few very successful shows. In one of them, Fool Us, other illusionists do their acts, and try to outwit the duo. They seldom do. It’s actually a solid show.

  5. Margot, you and your readers might want to pick up a copy (still in print, I think, from The Neversink Library) of Houdini’s book, The Right Way to Do Wrong, which is a fascinating look at some of the tricks, cons and scams employed by the criminals and frauds (not to mention the phony seances and such). The intro to this edition is by Teller, who writes:

    “Magicians fool their audiences. But only for a little while, only in the theater. After the curtain call, you may wonder how the magician seemed to produce a ghost, but you don’t believe the show proved ghosts are real. You have been mystified, not suckered. This distinction was a moral point for Houdini, and much of his writing was devoted to exposing people who were passing off tricks as reality.”


    • Thank you, Les, for the suggestion. I really like the distinction Teller makes between mystifying an audience, and suckering them. It is an important difference, and he and his partner always make that clear. And he makes a well-taken point about Houdini’s approach, too.

  6. Col

    Not a massive fan of magic and illusions to be honest, so I don’t think I’ve crossed paths with it in my reading.

  7. Eli Marks starts out as a “debunker” in John Gaspard’s The Ambitious Card. As a magician and sceptic, he sets out to debunk a man claiming to be a spiritualist, which makes Eli into prime suspect when the spiritualist turns up dead. In the later books, Eli turns more into a straight magician than a debunker, but he’s always honest about the fact that what he’s doing is illusion rather than actual magic…

    • Oh, I’ve heard of the Gaspard series, FictionFan, but never tried them (yet). I’m so glad you brought them up, though, as they’re a good example of what I had in mind here. It’s interesting, too, how a character evolves like that over time. To me, that makes for more of an interesting character.

  8. I had an upbringing steeped in superstition but I try to veer away from it as much as possible. I do know if you believe in anything strong enough you can unconsciously lead to it coming true in some form. How far it goes is up to you.

    • Well-put, Traci! Our minds have a great deal of power, so it really is possible to convince ourselves of nearly anything. And then, we see whatever the outcome is through that prism. As you say, it all depends on perspective.

  9. Pingback: Writing Links 3/27/17 – Where Genres Collide

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