As this is posted, it would have been Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum’s 208th birthday. As you’ll know, he was a master showman and entrepreneur. His circus was one of the most famous in the world, and he was highly skilled at ‘smoke and mirrors.’
Barnum hasn’t been the only one who was skilled at separating people from their money and dazzling them with illusions. There’ve been plenty of people who were masters of those skills. And it’s interesting to see them in crime fiction. It’s just as interesting to see how other characters are willing to believe what they see.
For instance, in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we meet self-styled medium Ava Garrett. She’s very good at creating the illusion that she can actually communicate with those who’ve passed away. So, when financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed in what looks like a terrible accident, his friend, Benny Frayle, attends one of Garrett’s séance events. Oddly enough, she says things about Brinkley’s death that she couldn’t have known. Frayle is convinced of Garrett’s authenticity, and tries to get the police to investigate Brinkley’s death as a murder. At first, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Tom Barnaby is reluctant to do much. He does go back through the various reports about the event, but it seems to him that the police on the scene did their jobs professionally. And they found no evidence of murder. Then, Garrett dies of what turns out to be poison. Now it looks as though there is more to this than an accident. So, Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy look at both deaths more closely and find the connection between them.
One of the characters in William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel is an enigmatic showman/magician named Louis Cyphre. Using his law firm as the ‘middle man,’ Cyphre contacts New York PI Harry Angel to offer him a missing person case. It seems that Cyphre is looking for a former musician nicknamed Johnny Favorite, who disappeared after returning from World War II. He was suffering from what we would now call PTSD, and was in a mental institution, but he’s gone. According to Cyphre, he’d provided support to Favorite to get his career going, in exchange for ‘collateral’ that he says he wants. Angel takes the case and starts trying to find the missing man. It’s not an ordinary missing person case, though, and it’s not long before Angel is drawn into a web of horror, murder, and more. Throughout the novel, Cyphre remains rather elusive and mysterious, and it’s interesting to see the effect he has on his audience.
Teresa Solana’s Josep ‘Pip’ Martínez (he prefers to be called Borja), is another sort of showman. Together with his twin brother, Eduard, he owns a Barcelona-based PI agency. Borja knows that if the agency is to attract well-paying clients who will refer other well-paying clients, it has to look like an exclusive, very successful place. Showman that he is, Borja has all sorts of tricks to make the agency look the way he wants. For instance, there’s a door that doesn’t actually lead anywhere; it’s designed to make the office look much bigger than it is. The brothers can’t afford a secretary/receptionist, but Borja uses props like a bottle of nail lacquer, an empty coffee mug, and so on to make it look as though there is a secretary, but she’s doing errands/at lunch/indisposed for the day/etc. These little tricks are quite successful at convincing people that the agency is much more profitable than it is.
Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing introduces readers to Dr. Suresh Jha. His mission is to show the superiority of science and reason over what he sees as superstition and false spiritualism. In fact, he’s founded the Delhi Institute For Research and Education (D.I.R.E.) for just that purpose. One morning, he’s participating in a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. Suddenly, so say witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and stabs Jha. Believers say that she killed him as punishment for his infidelity and for leading others astray. Jha is a former client of Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri, so when Puri finds out what happens, he starts to ask questions. It’s not that Puri doesn’t have religious beliefs; he does. But he doesn’t really believe that Kali killed Jha. As he searches for the answers he wants, Puri and his team meet up with more than one master showman…
And then there’s Seán Haldane’s The Devil’s Making, which takes place mostly in Victorian-Era Vancouver. At the time, it’s a frontier Empire outpost with very little in the way of police service. Chad Hobbes, who’s recently completed his degree in Jurisprudence at Oxford, wants to see some of the world before he settles down with the requisite law firm, wife, and home. Armed with a litter of introduction, he is given a job as a police constable, which mostly means settling drunken quarrels and occasionally clearing out houses where prostitutes work. Then, a group of Tsmishian Indians reports that they’ve found the mutilated body of Richard McCrory. At first, it looks very much like the Tsimshian leader is responsible for the murder. But Hobbes’ instructions are to go through the motions of asking questions, so that the police are seen to be doing their jobs. As he looks into the matter, though, Hobbes begins to have doubts about what really happened. It sees that McCrory was an alienist, a psychiatrist before the development of modern psychiatric and psychological science. He was also a mesmerist and a phrenologist. He gave lectures and also saw private patients, most of whom had what we would now call depression. His ‘treatment sessions’ involved what we’d now call sexual abuse of his patients. McCrory has a certain charisma, and he was a showman. As Hobbes keeps searching for answers, though, he finds more and more possible suspects. In the end, he finds out who really killed McCrory and why.
Some people are gifted at dazzling others and getting them to part with their money. Whatever their other qualities, these people have the charisma and the ‘razzle dazzle’ to make it work. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse’s Razzle Dazzle.