“Magic is fiction. So, writing fiction about magic is the most natural thing in the world.”
One need only consider the impact of Shakespeare’s Prospero and Puck to L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz to the current Harry Potter rage (and billions in business) to understand the role magicians play in literature and popular culture.
In 1971 a young boy wandered into Hamleys department store in London and was smitten with the world of magic when the magic counter demonstrator changed an American penny into a dime. “I didn’t realize until much later that it was unusual for the English to feature an American money trick” Daniel Stashower related during a phone interview with MagicTimes.
This trip to Great Britain would be the first of many for this Cleveland native who has since become a best-selling mystery writer and an award-winning biographer of Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. After five years of hard living and writing, in several countries, and a lifetime of research, Stashower’s Teller of Tales–The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle was published by the Henry Holt Company in 1999 winning the prestigious Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. The book was also awarded the coveted Agatha Award presented by the Malice Domestic Mystery Convention that same week.
This past April Stashower received rave reviews for his new biography of Philo T. Farnsworth, titled The Boy Genius and the Mogul, the inventor of the key component of modern television. “It is a wonderful tale,” wrote Malcom Gladell in The New Yorker, “Riveting and bittersweet.” In fact, before the biography rolled off the press, it was optioned for a movie production by MIRAMAX films.
Daniel Stashower was educated at Northwestern University and received his Masters in Creative Writing from Columbia University. During his graduate studies he wrote and published his first novel The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man where Houdini and Sherlock Holmes meet and solve a crime. “I was always interested in the fact that Houdini and Conan Doyle kept popping up in each others biographies,” Stashower told MagicTimes. Indeed, when considering that the two historic figures knew each other and later had a falling out over their conflicting views on spiritualism, the story is rife with intrigue — even prompting Houdini’s lawyer Bernard M. L. Ernst to pen the tome Houdini & Doyle: A Strange Friendship.
Having become a published author at age 24, Stashower set out to use his magical experience to create a new figure in the magic-mystery pantheon: Paul Galliard.
Galliard, in fact, was modeled after Stashower’s own practice of magic at restaurants, bars, parties and the occasional club show. “The silk to cane, the invisible deck, mouth coils, a pretty mean rising card trick, rope tricks learned from Abbott’s Encyclopedia of Rope Magic and Gene Anderson’s torn and restored newspaper were my stock-in-trade,” the writer says. At one performance for MENSA (the high IQ society), he stumped the attendance by making a champagne bottle dematerialize instantaneously.
During a panel discussion for The Boucheron Mystery Conference in 2001 he was asked to appear as a character from one of his books. He came attired in a straitjacket ala Houdini. When a question came to him, he exhaled with great gusto and told the audience that he had been holding his breath for a record 30 minutes. The audience roared. His lectures for Sherlockians are often peppered with a little magic such as predicting a word (via a “Holmesian hunch”) that will be chosen at random from one of his books. At The Players club on Gramercy Park south in Manhattan he regaled his audience with a tongue-in-cheek Houdini-like challenge. He asked the audience to name any topic at all, and Stashower claimed he would be able to align that topic to Arthur Conan Doyle. Like Houdini, he’s never been beaten. He has been admitted to the most exclusive of all Sherlockian societies, the Baker Street Irregulars. His investiture, or club name is, appropriately enough, Thurston. The celebrated writer is a pretty hard-core fan of Holmes and his creator. He’s sported a meerschaum pipe and deerstalker hat from time to time. For several years he had a guinea pig roommate named Mrs. Hudson.
The Galliard mystery titled Elephants in the Distance was lauded by Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times: “The author works powerful magic of the literary kind on these courtly old illusionists, presenting their played-out routines with courtesy and their worn out persons with respect…Mr. Stashower’s second mystery is no sleight of hand trick, but a model whodunit, expertly constructed and executed with real finesse.”
Finesse is a good word to describe this writer who has parlayed his practice of and passion for magic into articles about the late Mike Skinner for Connoisseur and magic collector Ken Klosterman for Smithsonian magazine. He is co-author of an episode of the Showtime TV series Stargate. For many years he wrote the magic, occult and psychic sections of the famous Time-Life series Mysteries of the Unknown. Of his own beliefs, Stashower writes in Teller of Tales that “I should admit that I have never had any traffic with the spirit realm, that I am a supporter of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and that it has been some years since I believed in fairies. At the same time, I also belong to the Society for Psychical Research, I once shook hands with Uri Geller and some of my closest friends claim to be psychic. I consider myself, then, a cordial disbeliever.”
Shortly after his second novel, Daniel Stashower was awarded the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship in Detective and Crime Fiction Writing to Oxford University. He often delighted his colleagues adorned in formal professorial robes with Paul Curry’s Out of this World at the high table over decanters of port at Wadham College.
It was during his year-long stay at Oxford that the greatest magic entered his life — his program director Alison Corbett. On their first date they attended the magical show Le Cirque Invisible featuring Victoria Chaplin and her magician-husband Jean Baptiste Thierree. The lovely Ms. Corbett magically became Mrs. Stashower a few years later.
The married couple returned to the US in 1997 shortly after Stashower’s compendium of magical novelties (aided by Dr. Edwin A. Dawes and others) was published as The Redstone Box of Tricks which was later published by Random House as The Magic Box and in its third incarnation as The Hocus Pocus Box. The Stashowers now live in Bethesda, Maryland with their young son, Sam.
The Stashower house is magical and mysterious. The living room is replete with an antique rotating bookshelf and a beautifully framed “Alexander — The Man Who Knows” poster. The bookshelves are lined with his awards sitting next to his Tarbell Course.
Stashower comes by his profession with some family history. Hugo Gernsback, his grandmother’s eccentric cousin, was the man who coined the term “science fiction.”
It was Gernsback’s publication Amazing Stories that inspired a fourteen year old boy named Philo T. Farnsworth in Idaho, who, while plowing the family farm, saw the patterns that the hay fell in. Somehow young Philo transfigured those patterns into beams of electrons, which would later become the basis for television! The story Stashower relates of Farnsworth’s struggle to achieve independence as an inventor is heart breaking, and told with the pacing and intrigue of a first class drama. Farnsworth is an underdog — though does achieve fame if not real fortune.
Stashower is adept at presenting this character as he is at profiling the young, fictionalized Houdini in his three mystery novels depicting the pre-world famous self liberator: The Dime Museum Murders, The Floating Lady Murder (where a woman drowns while floating in mid air) and The Houdini Specter.
Of making mystery with the pre-1900 Houdini,Stashower had to make the escape artist’s methods and magic plausible. The author writes, “Bill Bixby has a lot to answer for. In 1973 he starred in a TV series called The Magician. He played a headlining magician who solved crimes. He lived on an airplane, drove a white Corvette and each week we learned that there was no situation so perilous that it could not be mastered by the skills of a really good magician. Once when witnessing an attempted mob hit of a woman bound in chains and shackled and tossed in the ocean, Anthony Blake (Bixby’s character) went to rescue her. And he had a set of lock picks in his dive suit! In his dive suit mind you!” After the series ended — when the young writer-magician was 13 and busily trying to master the Multiplying Billiard Balls and the Hippety Hop Rabbits — he set out to find more magician-detective writers and stories and ended up consumed by the work of John Dickson Carr, Clayton Rawson, Walter Gibson and lesser known authors Bill Ballinger and Guy Cullingford.
It was from this education in addition to Milbourne Christopher’s Illustrated History of Magic (he owns writer-magician Christopher’s travel typewriter) that he encountered the problem of logic in magician characters in mystery writing.
His main protagonist Paul Galliard uses his magical skills to help deduce who is killing a series of old magicians and sending along the tell-tale death warrant of a broken wand. In his Houdini series, the stories of young Harry’s exploits are told by his brother Hardeen as yarns of yesteryear. Hardeen relates his brother’s bombastic ego and cleverness much the same way Watson spoke of Sherlock Holmes’ shrewd behavior.
What distinguishes Stashower’s fictionalization of Houdini and the creation of Galliard is his honest intent and execution of what magicians actually do. It is easy to have a magician snap his fingers and make evil disappear. But Stashower’s integrity as a magician supports historical accuracy and engages the reader with backstage cleverness without giving away magical technique…and this is not easy to do. The addition of genuine history such as Mr. McAdow, Kellar’s manager in The Floating Lady Murder is a plus on top of his devilishly clever plots. One Sherlockian member of the erudite Baker Street Irregulars, Bill Vande Water, sums up Stashower’s unique talents for meshing magic and mystery writing: “He is very good at showing (and not telling) how the magician, adept at the psychology of deception, uses his knowledge to see through the deceits of the criminal. His strongest points in all his works is his trust in the intelligence of the reader. He presents his clues and explanations without patronizing his audience (another good facet of any good magician or stage persona).”
At the end of his third novel in his Harry Houdini Mystery Series (available from Avon Books) Stashower invokes the creation of television and ends the book by telling the reader that he is not “pulling a fast one” by using the invention as a plot device. “When it comes to research, I’m on pretty solid ground,” he tells the reader in a brief Afterword.
He followed his series about the “justly celebrated elusive American” Houdini with a story that is as big as can be told — the creation of television. In fact, you would not be reading this story in this medium were it not for the brilliant Philo T. Farnsworth chronicled in Stashower’s sympathetic and detailed The Boy Genius and the Mogul (Broadway Books).
Daniel Stashower is at heart a magician. His output is prodigious. Since 1999 he has published 5 books — 3 novels and 2 biographies. When one enters his office he is apt to make objects transform while under glass or relate a scenario that is worthy of his books. Like many magicians, he loves gadgets and adventure. Like the subjects of his books — he takes risks, and he usually succeeds in overcoming adversity. He has meshed the colorful history of magic including its eccentric and innovative characters with the greatest tales of the most notable writers, inventors and magicians of the 20th century.
When you read Stashower’s The Boy Genius and the Mogul see if you agree that there is magic at work when you read of “capturing light in a bottle,” the Houdiniesque chapter about “The Battle of the Century” or the fact that Farnsworth and magicians “fooled the eye into seeing electrons producing a solid image at once.”
After all, TV, the invention that revolutionized modernity (that we take for granted) was initially called “the magic box.”
To find out more about these Daniel Stashower books or to purchase them click on the individual titles below:
Ben Robinson is a magician and writer who lives in New York City. He wrote “Twelve Have Died,” the definitive book on the Bullet Catch, and is a recipient of the Milbourne Christopher Foundation award for his notable contributions to magic. He is the co-founder of The Art Rock ‘N Roll Circus and produced STOMP at Lincoln Center. His latest book “Ben Robinson On Synchronicity” was published last year on CD. For more information visit: www.illusiongenius.com.