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on March 7th, 2017
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Harry Houdini’s one-time apprentice holds fantastic secrets about the greatest illusionist in the world. But someone wants to claim them . . . or silence her before she can reveal them on her own.
Boston, 1926. Jenny “Wren” Lockhart is a bold eccentric—even for a female vaudevillian. As notorious for her inherited wealth and gentleman’s dress as she is for her unsavory upbringing in the back halls of a vaudeville theater, Wren lives in a world that challenges all manner of conventions.
In the months following Houdini’s death, Wren is drawn into a web of mystery surrounding a spiritualist by the name of Horace Stapleton, a man defamed by Houdini’s ardent debunking of fraudulent mystics in the years leading up to his death. But in a public illusion that goes terribly wrong, one man is dead and another stands charged with his murder. Though he’s known as one of her teacher’s greatest critics, Wren must decide to become the one thing she never wanted to be: Stapleton’s defender.
Forced to team up with the newly formed FBI, Wren races against time and an unknown enemy, all to prove the innocence of a hated man. In a world of illusion, of the vaudeville halls that showcase the flamboyant and the strange, Wren’s carefully constructed world threatens to collapse around her.
Layered with mystery, illusion, and the artistry of the Jazz Age’s bygone vaudeville era, The Illusionist’s Apprentice is a journey through love and loss and the underpinnings of faith on each life’s stage.
The Illusionist’s Apprentice was utterly charming, and quite surprising. We’ll talk about the charming first, and get to the surprising at the end.
Just like last week’s Blood and Circuses, the story in The Illusionist’s Apprentice is set in a world that is gone. In this case, that world is the vaudeville circuit. Vaudeville flourished during the period just before the American Civil until the 1910s, with the advent of movies. During the period of The Illusionist’s Apprentice, it is clear to the participants that vaude is dying, if not yet dead.
For our main character, the illusionist Wren Lockhart, vaudeville is the only life she’s ever known.
This is also a mystery, wrapped not so much in the proverbial enigma, but in a profound conundrum. Also in a web of contacts and enemies. A web that Wren entered as the late Harry Houdini’s apprentice, but must now maintain all by herself.
Or so it seems.
In the 1920s there was a rise in interest in spiritualism. Everyone had lost someone in recent memory, either to the Great War or the Spanish Influenza Epidemic. Lots of people were willing to latch onto any possibility of communicating with their deceased loved ones. And all too many con artists were willing to latch onto the money of those who grieved.
Harry Houdini, the famous illusionist and escape artist, had almost a secondary career in exposing fake mediums and spiritualists. Wren Lockhart was his apprentice, both as an illusionist and as a fake medium buster.
So she has come to see whether one of those fake mediums that she helped ruin, Horace Stapleton, really can bring the dead back to life. In a cemetery. It’s obviously yet another gag, but how did he do it? And why did someone put him up to it?
The FBI is watching Stapleton and the crowd, because it’s so obviously a scam even if they can’t figure out how. FBI Agent Matthews is watching Wren in particular, when the unthinkable happens. Twice. Stapleton, in a flourish of showmanship, seems to actually raise one of the corpses from the grave. Only to have the man walk a few steps and collapse, dead again.
Among the very meager evidence, Matthews finds a note linking the late Houdini and the still living Wren Lockhart to the crime, or event, or whatever-the-heck it was. And Matthews is all too eager to follow that trail, if only for a chance to speak with the woman who fascinates him.
Wren and Matthews find kindred spirits in each other. Both driven, both workaholics before the term was invented, both using their focus on their work to keep others at a distance. They discover that they need each other. At first, Matthews just needs an entree into the world of vaudeville. He needs Wren’s help to figure out just how Stapleton did whatever it was he did.
Wren needs Matthews. She’s not used to relying on anyone, keeping her feelings and her secrets carefully locked away. But someone is targeting her, and she needs an outsider, particularly a very protective outsider, to help her find the snake in the grass at her feet.
They manage to keep each other alive, long enough to dig up all the truths, not just the ones that Wren has been hiding, but also the ones that have been hidden around her, under the cover of illusion.
Escape Rating A-: This was absolutely charming from beginning to end. Just like a member of her audience, I was sucked into Wren’s illusions from the very beginning of the story. She is an absolutely fascinating character. She is so completely eccentric, so much “out there” even for a female vaudevillian, that one can’t help but be captivated. At the same time, her position in the world of vaude gives her the opportunity to be unconventional in a way that makes her easy for a 21st century woman to empathize with. Her perspectives feel like hers, but they also mirror ours.
FBI Agent Elliot Matthews wants to be a hero. More correctly, he discovers that he wants to be Wren’s hero. But in spite of his status as an FBI Agent, he is not a hero in the usual mold. While he’d like to protect her, he comes to recognize that what he wants isn’t what Wren needs, or is willing to accept. Wren is looking for a hero who will walk beside her, letting her fight her own dragons. And Matthews discovers that he is willing to be that person, even though it isn’t easy.
The story here is one of wheels within wheels within wheels. It’s not a traditional mystery, but it is a mystery. And it’s one with ever widening circles of puzzles as it unravels.
Initially the mystery is all about Stapleton and whoever it is that is or isn’t dead. Then it widens to include who wanted to link Wren to the stunt, and why. Then it’s who is trying to kill Wren, and why. And finally, what is the deep, dark secret in Wren’s past that she has spent so much time, effort and money in concealing, and that someone is trying so hard to expose.
The secret of Wren’s past, and her present, is a very slow reveal, as she comes to trust Matthews more and more over time, and she peels away some of her protective layers. Some of the way that this is done is by skipping backwards into Wren’s past, so that we see those events as they happened. The jumps back and forth are a bit disconcerting at first, but in the end it does work.
And keeps the reader on the edge of their seat until the very end. Just like one of Wren Lockhart’s performances.
Now for why I was so surprised that I loved this book. Like The Hideaway, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, The Illusionist’s Apprentice was published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, a well-known and well-respected publisher of Christian inspirational literature, both fiction and nonfiction. And also like The Hideaway, The Illusionist’s Apprentice is not inspirational fiction, even though it is billed as such. And I was wary of it, like The Hideaway, because of that billing and that publisher. So I am left, as I was after reading The Hideaway, both confused and concerned. It is quite possible that people looking for inspirational fiction will be disappointed by this book. It is excellent historical fiction, but not inspie. It is also very possible that readers like myself, who steer far clear of inspirational fiction, will miss this book because of the publisher. I want this book to find its much deserved audience, and I worry that it won’t.
If you love historical fiction, particularly set in the 1920s (which is a fascinating period that’s getting a LOT more love since Downton Abbey), The Illusionist’s Apprentice is marvelous. And that’s no illusion!