by Iain Lawrence

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SCOOTER KING UNDERSTANDS illusions. In the midst of the Roaring Twenties, he performs them behind the scenes at his mother’s séances, giving the impression that Madam King communicates with the dead. Scooter also admires Harry Houdini and can hardly wait to see the famed magician escape from his razzle-dazzle Burmese Torture Tank. But when Scooter stumbles… See more details below


SCOOTER KING UNDERSTANDS illusions. In the midst of the Roaring Twenties, he performs them behind the scenes at his mother’s séances, giving the impression that Madam King communicates with the dead. Scooter also admires Harry Houdini and can hardly wait to see the famed magician escape from his razzle-dazzle Burmese Torture Tank. But when Scooter stumbles upon a dead body in the visiting Houdini’s tank, it’s no illusion. Who could the murderer be? And did he—or she—kill the right person?

As Scooter sets out to unmask the killer, the mysterious worlds of mediums, séances, and magic are revealed. No one is above suspicion, and appearances are deceiving. If Scooter doesn’t sort out the clues—and fast—he may end up as the next dead body.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Mystery lovers will get a kick out of this rollicking whodunit featuring swashbuckling soothsayers, outlandish séances, magic tricks and more. Set in the Roaring 20s, the fact-based narrative follows Scooter King, a sharp-witted 13-year-old who finds a dead body in Harry Houdini's Burmese Torture Tank and vows to unmask the murderer before he or she strikes again. Meanwhile, Scooter's mother is grasping at fame as a spiritual medium-albeit by counting on Scooter to manipulate various instruments and gadgets behind the scenes-and fighting off Houdini's attempts to expose fortunetelling frauds. The storytelling is pure fun, as the author uses flavorful period details (Scooter's mother says that even a "Bolshevik" could make himself rich: "All you have to do now is sit long enough on a flagpole, or dance the Charleston until you nearly drop dead"), and Scooter, the narrator, gets his perspective across with plenty of slang ("a lot of applesauce"; "the eel's hips"). As if staging a magic show of his own, Lawrence (The Wreckers) builds suspense and adds plot twists right up until the climactic conclusion. Ages 8-12. (July)

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Children's Literature
AGERANGE: Ages 8 to 12.

Thirteen-year-old Scooter King, son of a local psychic, is familiar with deception. He assists behind the scenes, convincing customers that his mother can truly contact the dead. When his mother and he attend a s�ance held by another local medium, Scooter follows a mysterious stranger out of the house and into town. There, after losing the stranger, his admiration for Harry Houdini entices him to sneak a peak at the Burmese Torture Tank. Inside the tank, he discovers a dead body. Caught up in trying to solve the murder, Scooter involves himself in a dangerous mystery that could result in his death. While the author incorporates diction from the era to give the story a 1920s' feel, this murder mystery never completely establishes itself in the Roaring Twenties and many of the unfamiliar terms are never explained to the reader. The characters often come across flat, leaving only the suspenseful plot and pacing to drive this story forward. Reviewer: Melissa Joy Adams

School Library Journal

Gr 5-7

Lawrence explores Houdini's attempts to expose the spiritual fakery of mediums and séances in this novel set in June 1926. Thirteen-year-old Scooter King's mother is a medium; his hero is Houdini. When the great escape artist appears at the Orpheum, it is Scooter who finds a dead man in Houdini's Burmese Torture Tank. Certain that the killer meant to get rid of his idol, Scooter is determined to identify the culprit. Then, two more killings occur. The book is full of period references-to Stanley Steamers, flagpole sitting, the Charleston, etc., as well as slang, such as "the bee's knees," "the cat's pajamas," "the eel's hips," all of which at times bog down the story line. Houdini's eccentric personality is evident, and Scooter is a well-developed character. Secondary figures, however, are one-dimensional. Kids will enjoy learning how some of the illusions and tricks used by mediums work. Most touching is Scooter's coming-of-age awareness that mediums, even his mother, are likely fake. Tom Lalicki's similarly well-researched Danger in the Dark: A Houdini & Nate Mystery (Farrar, 2006) integrates history into mystery in a more lighthearted, entertaining way. An afterword explains how Lawrence became interested in Houdini and which parts of the story are true.-Connie Tyrrell Burns, Mahoney Middle School, South Portland, ME

Kirkus Reviews
Thirteen-year-old Scooter King's mom is a medium, and he's not amused by the "Oh yeah, well my mom's a large" joke. As a spirit-summoner's son, his weekly chores include facilitating seances with the usual tricks of the trade: cheesecloth faces, hoof-beat simulation, whispering voices and the like. Scooter's encounters with the dead soon become all too real when he inadvertently stumbles upon the corpse of Herman Day, submerged in Houdini's Burmese Torture Tank in Boston's Orpheum Theater. A natural detective, Scooter boldly begins investigating Day's murder and finds himself face-to-face with Harry Houdini himself: world-famous escape artist and, to Scooter's mother's dismay, crusader against fraudulent mediums. The first-person perspective is punchy and engaging, but the excess of '20s lingo ("chump," "eel's hips," "a lot of applesauce," etc.) occasionally lends a distracting flippancy to the dramatic, sometimes genuinely poignant story. Drawing from several true stories, Lawrence has crafted an elaborate, fun, fast-paced murder mystery with a rich sense of time and place. (afterword, acknowledgments, about the author) (Historical fiction. 11 & up)

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Product Details

Random House Children's Books
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Age Range:
9 - 12 Years

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At five minutes to midnight, a stranger arrived for the seance. He came out of the hot summer darkness and tapped three times on the door.
The sitters were at their places, all four around the table. My mother was dressing in her bedroom. So I was the one who answered the knock. Scooter King, thirteen, I saw the Stranger in.
He was standing under the porch light, like a big moth in a rumpled overcoat, holding his hat and a bamboo cane. His hair was silver, his mustache gray, his spectacles thick and round. Behind the lenses of those cheaters, his eyes were almost yellow.
He spoke in a soft and mumbly voice. "I'm not too late, I hope. For the sitting, I mean." From the bowl of his hat he pulled out a scrap of newspaper. He showed me the advertisement that he'd circled in black.
"This is the proper place, isn't it?" asked the Stranger.
"Sure. Come in," I said.
The guy was a chump. He tried to take off his coat without putting down his cane, so he got himself in such a tangle that I had to unhook him from his own clothes. Then he gave me his things, and I led him into the tiny room that my mother called the vestibule but was really a closet with the shelves ripped out. Inside was a lamp, a wicker chair, and a spindly table that would shake if someone looked at it too hard. Piled on the tabletop were a stack of books, a candle and matches, and an ashtray shaped like a turtle. Under all that stuff, the table looked more crowded than Noah's ark, but the widgets were there for a reason.
"Madam King is waiting," I said. "If you could write out a question for the spirits, I-"
"That's not necessary," said the Stranger. He patted his mustache, smoothing its ends. "I have only one wish, and that's to hear from my poor Annie."
"Of course." I turned away and dumped the Stranger's stuff on the chair. His eyes had changed color in the lamplight, reflecting the red from the roses that sprawled on the wallpaper. It gave me the heebie-jeebies to look at them. "Please follow me," I said.
We went down the hall and into the seance room. Mr. Stevenson twisted round in his chair to squint at us over his narrow bifocals. That week he'd turned seventy-one. He had been a drummer boy in the Civil War; he had met President Lincoln. But he was still the youngest at the table. If their ages had been added together, it would have been more than three hundred years. After every seance, I had to open the windows to blow out the old-people smell.
I got a chair for the Stranger and sat him at the end of the table. Of course I made sure that his back was toward the huge wardrobe that stood against the wall. Mr. Stevenson leaned forward and shouted at him, "Are you a believer, sir?"
"I believe what I see," said the Stranger.
"Well, see this," said Mr. Stevenson, bristling like a porcupine. But his wife calmed him down. She patted his hand and told the Stranger, "Henry's hoping to contact Paul Revere tonight. You see, Henry's a bug about Paul Revere, and-"
"I'm not a bug," said Mr. Stevenson. "I'm interested."
"Oh, he only knows more about Paul Revere than anyone alive." Mrs. Stevenson smiled at her husband. "He's frightened that a nonbeliever might block the spirits. They do that, you know."
"I assure you, I will block no spirits," said the Stranger.
I left them at the table, went out, and shut the door. Then I sprinted down the hall to the vestibule and snatched the Stranger's hat from the chair.
The sweatband was still warm. I peeled it away with my thumb, bending it back to look for a name underneath. When I found it, I smiled. The first initial was blurry from sweat, but the rest was easy to read.

J. Brown

I turned to the overcoat next. I rifled every pocket, but all I got was a hat-check stub from the Limelight Club and a Chuckles candy wrapped in lint. But there was a hole in the right-hand pocket, so I groped through the lining and found two curious things. The first was a small metal ring, the second a sticky ball of lint and mold.
Now, this was the sort of puzzle that I liked to solve. By itself, the ring didn't seem important. But I figured if the green stuff was an old biscuit, then maybe the ring came from a dog tag. I imagined Mr. Brown stuffing his pockets with Chuckles and biscuits, picking up a leash, whistling for Annie. He wouldn't have been the first person to come to Madam King about a dead dog. It happened nearly every month, someone showing up to speak to a dog or cat-or even a budgie-that had gone along to Summerland.

From the Hardcover edition.

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