Martin Strauss is doubly cursed: he is the victim of a degenerative condition that destroys his memories while replacing them with false ones, and the man responsible for the death of Harry Houdini. He is also the emotional heart of Steven Galloway’s fourth novel, a colourful but thinly stretched dual narrative recounting the life and loves of the world’s greatest illusionist, and the story of the man who killed him.
The opening sections are occasionally encumbered by backstory and extensive explanations of the magician’s best-known tricks, but this material becomes more interesting when embedded in surprising narrative turns, as when Houdini is offered (and refuses) Rasputin’s position as spiritual adviser to the Russian Tsar and Tsarina. Exploiting popular theories that Houdini was recruited by the U.S. secret service, Galloway builds intrigue by mixing the personal and the political, culminating in Houdini’s entanglement with the Spiritualist community (led by no less than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who turns the séance tables on the master magician with surprising venom).
A tapestry of themes includes the nature of love and ambition, grief and imagination, perception and memory. Martin’s sections offer flashes of emotional awareness, most notably in a scene in which he is forced to doubt a cherished childhood memory. However, the restrained narration that worked well in the author’s previous book, The Cellist of Sarajevo, is less effective here. Whereas Galloway’s spare prose heightened the tension in his account of urban survival during the three-year Serbian assault, The Confabulist’s dispassionate tone and cursory descriptions render crucial scenes emotionally flat.
The plot thickens in the final third, as Martin attempts to atone to the woman introduced to him as Houdini’s daughter, and the story races to its surprising conclusion. Galloway’s research sometimes becomes a hindrance, suggesting an author too much in thrall to the great magician’s secrets, but this is not a fatal flaw. We may not care much about Houdini as a character, but neither did his audiences care deeply about the elephant made to vanish before their eyes. Readers looking for the innocent pleasures of a good smoke-and-mirrors mystery will be amply rewarded.