The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister
Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus in The Magician’s Lie, a debut novel in which the country’s most notorious female illusionist stands accused of her husband’s murder – and she has only one night to convince a small-town policeman of her innocence.
The Amazing Arden is the most famous female illusionist of her day, renowned for her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage. One night in Waterloo, Iowa, with young policeman Virgil Holt watching from the audience, she swaps her trademark saw for a fire ax. Is it a new version of the illusion, or an all-too-real murder? When Arden’s husband is found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, the answer seems clear.
But when Virgil happens upon the fleeing magician and takes her into custody, she has a very different story to tell. Even handcuffed and alone, Arden is far from powerless – and what she reveals is as unbelievable as it is spellbinding. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free…and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors.
Review by Toki Mike:
In 1905, America’s most famous female magician is the Amazing Arden. One night in Waterloo, Iowa, Deputy Sherriff Virgil Holt watches her cut a man in half with a fire ax, and then the man reappears unhurt. After she leaves, her husband is found dead under the stage. After leaving for home, Virgil apprehends Arden near his station 20 miles from Waterloo. He chooses to question her and to decide whether he should release her or return her to Waterloo.
Arden repeatedly says she did not murder her husband but will not answer what she saw that night until she tells him about her life. So, chapters about her home, why she had to run away, and what jobs she had, are interleaved with chapters in Virgil’s station where he asks additional questions.
Her story includes becoming a ballerina student, fleeing home to save her parents, working at Cornelius Vanderbilt’s gigantic Biltmore house, and periods of danger. A magician works by making people believe what isn’t true. Virgil does not know if he can believe any part of her story. But as he learns more, his plans and motives become more complicated. And the reader has to keep trying to find out what is the “magician’s lie”.
Readers need to be aware that the story includes a period of systematic spousal abuse.
Review by A. J. Terry:
Near the beginning of The Magician’s Lie, famous female stage magician The Amazing Arden is arrested by police officer Virgil Holt. After she’s performed her immensely popular illusion of cleaving a man in half (which Holt witnessed), a dead man said to be her husband is found under the stage near the ax used for the illusion. Holt is at a very vulnerable place in his career and personal life. That day, before seeing Arden’s evening show, a doctor told him that a bullet in his spine could not safely be removed, and that it might gradually travel toward his spine and kill him, or outward and safely remove itself. Holt fears that he will be fired by his superiors and that his wife will leave him. When Holt sees Arden enter a roadside diner, he seizes an opportunity to save his career by arresting her and taking her by himself to his small-town police station, in hope of extracting an unaided confession.
Scheherazade-like, Arden (born Ada Bates) spins out her tale all night, starting with her childhood. Her mother, a musician born into a wealthy family, had an affair with Arden’s mysterious father. She became pregnant, he dumped her, and her parents reluctantly allowed her and Arden to live with them, treating them like poor relations.
When Arden’s feckless mother elopes with her music teacher, forfeiting both a planned performing tour of Europe and her parents’ support, Arden is stuck on a remote, struggling farm leased to her parents by her new stepfather’s brother. Although Arden finds joy in teaching herself ballet from a printed course of instruction, she is systematically stalked and terrified by Ray, her psychopathic cousin by marriage.
Ray is obsessed with the idea that he can injure people and then heal them. He starts by torturing various animals, and he also cuts himself, but it’s clear his real goal is Arden. When Arden’s mother finally finds some relatives willing to help Arden enter the world of professional ballet by auditioning for a famous teacher staying at the Vanderbilts’ country mansion Biltmore, Ray throws Arden off a high loft in the Vanderbilts’ barn, breaking her leg so that she cannot dance. Arden discovers she has real healing powers–the leg heals much faster than normal–but her chance at ballet school is gone.
Holt is fascinated by Arden’s account, especially as a bad bruise on her neck is rapidly healing in front of his eyes. His goal gradually shifts from a grand capture that will save his career, to a trade of her freedom for magical removal of his bullet. Or maybe he hopes to somehow get both? His putting three pairs of handcuffs around Arden’s wrists, and using two more pairs to chain Arden’s legs to the chair, while periodically gently wiping away her tears or feeding her bits of food and sips of water, reminded me a great deal of Ray.
Arden tells Holt she’s not an escape artist, but she spends much of the book escaping. When her mother refuses to believe her account of Ray’s abuse, Arden escapes back to the Biltmore. There she finagles a job as one of the mansion’s numerous servants.
She falls in love with a handsome young gardener named Clyde, who has ambitions to escape the Biltmore and become a landscape artist in New York. When Arden receives a note indicating that Ray has discovered her whereabouts, she agrees to leave with Clyde. Clyde is handsome, charming, but slightly shady. He knows how to pick locks (and stop them from ever catching), he borrows the Vanderbilts’ books without permission, and he generally knows how to work the angles.
At first Arden trusts Clyde utterly, then finds out she has trusted him too much, so she flees from him. Throughout the book, she’s running from Ray, sometimes physically and always emotionally. As a professional illusionist, first under the tutelage of another female illusionist and then with her own show, she’s always on the road.
And of course, Arden wants to escape Officer Holt and all those handcuffs. Maybe by convincing him she isn’t a murderess, maybe by getting him to sympathize with her feminine beauty and vulnerability, maybe by keeping him enthralled till someone rescues her, or till an opportunity for self-rescue presents itself.
When reading a book titled The Magician’s Lie, I naturally wondered what the lie was. Could it be that Arden is lying about not being an escape artist? Could she be lying about the extent of her healing powers? Is she lying about not being a murderess? Could she be lying to herself about her feelings for Clyde (who reappears and becomes her financial manager)? Or all of the above and even more? You’ll have to read the book and make up your own mind.