"Absorbing and well-paced." -The New York Times
The Houdini Girlby Martyn Bedford
"Unusually deft and witty dialogue. With great aplomb, [Bedford] has brought off an erotic thriller."The New York Times Book Review
In The Houdini Girl, award-winning mystery writer Martyn Bedford explores the pulsing spiritual chaos that lies at the heart of erotic obsession. Fletcher "Red" Brandon is a master/b>/i>
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"Unusually deft and witty dialogue. With great aplomb, [Bedford] has brought off an erotic thriller."The New York Times Book Review
In The Houdini Girl, award-winning mystery writer Martyn Bedford explores the pulsing spiritual chaos that lies at the heart of erotic obsession. Fletcher "Red" Brandon is a master magician who uses his talents to seduce Rosa, a flinty Irish woman. But when Rosa is killed suddenly, Red discovers secrets about the woman with whom he shared one sexy, combative, freewheeling year. Inside Rosa's shoulder bag are a wig and a stranger's passport. And when a routine investigation reveals that Rosa has vanished beforeand that her father was a terrorist for the IRAPeter suspects foul play.
Red finds himself in Amsterdam, a stranger stumbling through his lover's secret history. Following a trail of addiction, prostitution, and murder, Red's search for the truth becomes more and more laden with mystery and forces him to reveal his own unsavory secrets. Masterfully plotted, The Houdini Girl transcends sleight-of-hand trickery for a stunning tale of love, loss, and the lure of illusion.
That's just one example of the subtlety and grace of The Houdini Girl. The novel -- Bedford's second -- is essentially a noirish romance, stylish and fast-moving, but what sets it apart is its steadily beating heart. Red loses Rosa early, in a grisly and mysterious train accident, and spends the rest of the novel reflecting on their time together and searching for the key to what really happened, an inquiry that puts his own life in jeopardy.
There's all kinds of magic in The Houdini Girl: Red's line of work is inseparable from who he is. He delights in describing trick after trick in luscious detail, but he reveals no secrets ("Don't ask, because I won't tell you"). Yet his mastery of illusion brings him up short when he tries to understand what he perceives as Rosa's deception. Without leaning too heavily on the "magic is illusion" metaphor -- a little of that goes a long way -- Bedford spins out a lush (and sometimes very funny) meditation on romantic confusion and treachery, infidelity and, ultimately, undying love.
It's the love that gets you -- especially the way Bedford shows it reflected in the mirror of Red's grief, as if gazing upon it directly would be too painful. "In the information pack I received from the undertakers was a booklet," he writes. "There was a long list under the heading 'The Do's and Don't's of Grieving.' Nowhere did it say: Don't have nightmares; don't let yourself be reduced to tears because you can't open a jar of marmalade or because the rubbish sack splits on the way to the dustbin; Don't clean her bike; Don't sit alone in a room all day with the curtains drawn; Don't wake up before dawn every morning; Don't talk to her; Don't fill two bowls with cereal before you realize she isn't there to eat hers; Don't hear her footsteps in every creak of the house; Don't sleep in her half of the bed; Don't answer the phone expecting to hear her voice; Don't ask why? Nowhere did it say I wasn't to ask why?" With that deceptively casual list, Bedford brings Red into sharper relief than many other writers could in pages of prose. It takes skill and sensitivity to pull that off. And it takes a good boyfriend to miss a woman that much. -- Salon
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Ask away, I won't tell you how it's done. I never divulge the methodology of a specific effect. 'Exposure' that is, deliberate revelation of the secret means by which magic is accomplished, as opposed to 'disclosure' by accident or incompetence is discreditable. This isn't mere adherence on my part to a tenet of the Magic Circle, nor stubborn respect for the traditions of our profession (although it's true we've endeavored to guard our secrets for four thousand years). No, my reason for keeping schtum is pure self-interest. Methods are seldom as interesting as the feats performed by their means; if I tell the audience how it's done, I diminish their respect for me. Simple as that. Exposure, especially in the immediate aftermath of an effect, can't be anything but anticlimactic. Besides, divulging the 'trick' might satisfy an onlooker's curiosity, but magic isn't about tricks. To trick someone suggests you have (to your benefit and their disadvantage) cheated, swindled or deceived them in some underhand way. Trickery implies a perpetrator and a victim.
I am not a trickster, I am a magician. That is, I perform feats of conjuring and illusion for the purposes of entertainment. Performance is the key. In truth, tricks are incidental; if magic consists of mere trickery, then acting requires nothing but costume and make-up. I used to be an actor. To be exact, I was a member of an undergraduate drama society at Oxford (Poly, as was, not the University). I still live in Oxford; I still act. When I'm on stage, I'm an actor playing the part of a magician. Spectators, for all this, remain fixated on secrets, on trickery. They witness the performance the performance of a stunning magical feat, and barely has their initial amazement subsided than they are asking (I hear them, I see it in their faces): How the fuck did he do that?
As I say, magic, as an art form, isn't the mere presentation of puzzles to confound the onlooker; it isn't about tricks, it's about illusion. And being privy to the mechanics of a magical feat destroys any sense of illusion. I am an illusionist. Without illusion I am nothing. I believe Rosa appreciated this from the very beginning.
When our friends in the pub that evening mine and Rosa's implored me to divulge how the ash stain came to appear in her left palm, I declined. When they proposed various theories and hypotheses, I smiled non-committally. And when they urged me to repeat the illusion, I said no. Another of my golden rules: never perform the same feat twice before the same audience; once the element of surprise is gone, the illusion is devalued as a spectacle and the method becomes easier to detect. Rosa, who had more reasons than most for wanting to know the trick, didn't add her voice to the collective plea for disillusion. She sat quietly, frowning, holding her palm in front of her face as if to assure herself that the 'stigma' was there. Then she licked it off. Looking me full in the face across the table, her tongue streaked with ash, she said, 'How come they call you Red? You a fucking communist or something?'
Later that night, when I asked why she'd decided to sleep with me, she said a) I didn't cough when she made me vanish in a cloud of smoke; and b) my hands, as I guided hers into position for the stigmata illusion, weren't clammy.
'No other reason?'
'It wasn't because you fancied me?'
'I shagged you, didn't I?'
She told me she was twenty-four going on twenty-five, four years younger than me, though there were occasions when I felt juvenile in her presence. For instance, I couldn't refrain from asking whether she was friends with the guy she'd been flirting with in the Eagle and Child. Rosa said she'd never met him before.
'Anyway, I wasn't flirting with him.'
'Come off it.'
'You were the one I was flirting with.'
'You didn't speak to me all evening. You didn't even look at me.'
I reflected on this, running over the sequence of events that culminated in our introduction. I visualized her, assisting in the rearrangement of tables and chairs. I asked, 'Did you engineer it so we wound up sitting opposite each other?'
She smiled, shaking her head. 'Now, that would be telling.'
I asked Rosa about herself, and she told me. She was born in Killarney, County Kerry, and emigrated to London with her parents at the age of nine. An only child, despite what they say about Catholics. Something to do with a difficult labor. Daddy fucked her putting me in there, and I fucked her coming out. Seeing my expression, she shrugged off my unease at her remark. When Rosa spoke, whatever she said, you could like it or lump it. Mammy (Mary, natch) was a school dinner-lady; Daddy was a postman. Postman Patrick. They died in a car crash when she was fourteen. Mangled. You should've seen the car. She was put into care children's homes, foster parents. She left school, examless, and moved into a bedsit before she was seventeen. Kensal Rise. And, by the way, she wasn't R C any more. Not a proper one; she'd lapsed.
'How is it you've retained your Irish accent?'
'Retained, is it?'
Another shrug. 'I work with a bunch of Micks.'
'Dogsbody.' She stubbed out a cigarette. I'd no idea how many she'd smoked since we'd walked home from the pub. 'You heard of Erin?' I shook my head. 'Newspaper for Irish ex-pats. "Editorial assistant", that's me. Carting bits of paper from one gobshite journalist to another, answering the phone and making tea. Oh, and I get to sort the fucking post.'
'You enjoy it, then?'
'You should see the office like a public convenience, with computers instead of sinks.'
The second syllable of 'convenience' was elasticated to accommodate several 'e's between the 'v' and the 'n'. It must've been three in the morning. We were sitting cross-legged on my bed, facing one another, naked, smoking and listening to music. We'd fucked, twice. I don't know how we came to leave the pub together, it just happened. One minute, thirteen people were saying beery cheerios in St Giles; the next, the two of us were strolling through town towards Osney. A clear, cool night in early spring. Rosa wanted a burger from the cabin by the station, so we had one each with chips and ate from grease proof bags as we walked. Her mouth tasted of minced beef and ketchup when we stopped to kiss outside my house. In the glare of the security light, her hair hung in black swathes that framed a face made spectral by the harsh magnesium-white. The green strokes of make-up were rendered luminous.
In my bedroom she asked two questions before we undressed.
'D'you have condoms?'
'Are you shagging someone else?'
She held my gaze for a moment before beginning to unbutton my shirt. In bed, I was a puppet hands, mouth, cock maneuvered about her body by the tug of invisible strings. Rosa fucked me. And she used me to fuck herself. I told her, truthfully, I'd never had such a good shag in my entire life; she said she was glad about that. As we lay there afterwards, however, I found myself wondering about someone who would fuck a stranger less than four hours after they'd first met. It didn't occur to me that I'd behaved no differently to her. At least, it didn't strike me to make a comparison. Not at the time, though it does now. Besides, it wasn't just the fact that we'd fucked, it was the way we'd done it. I was at once exhilarated and excited and unfathomably afraid of the implications of a woman who could fuck so well.
'You a fucking communist or something?'
I drained my pint. Raising my voice above the noise of the pub, I replied, 'Red was the name of a horse.' My throat was raw from the smoke. 'Red Alligator, '68 Grand National. Dad won so much money he treated himself and Mum to a holiday. That was when I was conceived, so they reckon.'
Rosa said, 'Your old feller named you "Red" after a horse?'
'No, he called me Fletcher, after the winning jockey. Fletcher Brandon is my actual name. People call me Red because ... I suppose, as nicknames go, it's more interesting than "Fletch".' I elaborated. 'What it was, a friend of mine called me Red one time and it just sort of caught on.'
'Fletcher Brandon.' She rolled the name in her mouth like a boiled sweet.
'Dad was hoping I'd grow up to be a jockey. Wrong build, as it turned out.'
'What if the horse hadn't won?'
'Yeah, I used to wonder suppose his big win had come up at that year's Derby. Sir Ivor. I'd have been christened Piggott instead of Fletcher.' Rosa, noting my empty glass, offered me a slug of her lager. The side of the bottle was tacky where the label had been pared off. 'That would've meant me being conceived in June, though, rather than April.'
'Different egg, different sperm, different me. I'd have been made to vanish even before I was born. The greatest disappearing act of all!'
Rosa reclaimed her drink. 'Anyone ever told you you talk a load of shite?'
I could've expanded on the subject of my name. My names. But someone interrupted to ask what I was drinking (My fucking beer Rosa) and anyway, her previous remark for all it'd been dressed in a smile had had a deflating effect. In the months to follow, the accusation that I was talking shite would become a familiar refrain. So I didn't tell her Brandon wasn't the name I was born with. I chose it for myself. My original surname was Clarke, but I changed it, legally, when I was nineteen, when Dad fucked and then fucked off with a woman who was only two years older than me. Why 'Brandon'? At that time, I was starting to take my 'hobby' more seriously no longer content to practice magic without an appreciation of its theory, its art, its history. Among the books, I came across a reference to the principal juggler and conjuror in the court of Henry VIII. Brandon: the first British illusionist on record. His wasn't the most pleasant repertoire, but as an anarchic mathematics undergraduate he appealed to me. One of his feats performed before the king was to cause a pigeon to drop dead from its perch while the magician, uttering incantations, repeatedly stabbed a picture of the bird. The illusion was accomplished by Brandon having previously dosed the pigeon with nux vomica, timing the climax of his performance to coincide with the requisite number of minutes (established by experiment) for the poison to take effect. This is one secret method I don't mind exposing, my namesake's 'trick' being seldom scripted into modern conjuring routines.
No further mention of names, then. And, in all honesty, I forget what we did talk about, Rosa and I, as the fuss engendered by my small act of illusion evaporated, people returned to their places, and my fee a fresh pint was set in front of me. I recall that she showed no interest whatsoever in eliciting from me the secret of the stigmata; I recall, also, being impressed by that. A sucker for unpredictability, me. A sucker for Rosa, to tell the truth.
Even so, our initial meeting happened almost a year ago, and I find that some details of our time together in the intervening months are uncertain or elusive, while others are etched in my memory with all the definition of the present. In the light of what has taken place, I'd willingly re-create each minute of each day we shared and expand every one of those moments to last an hour. But this is a feat beyond the power of magic. Although, as I go over events in my mind, I appear to be doing just that reviving and magnifying spent time. Another illusion, self-inflicted. What began as a commitment to memory, a preservation of the past before it slipped like sand through my fingers, has assumed the nature of a quest. A quest for truth. My obsession has been the scrutiny of moments and details in the belief that contained within them are the secrets of understanding. I understand this, at least: the clearest, most vivid recollection I have my abiding and unalterable memory of Rosa Kelly is of how vibrant she was that first night. I have never met anyone who was so alive.
The morning after was a Sunday, we stayed in bed until mid-afternoon. We ate breakfast and lunch off trays like a pair of bedridden invalids. We dozed, on and off, and we fucked. At four o'clock, Rosa got up without a word and began to dress. I asked where she was going and she said she was away home to collect her things.
'I thought I could move in, if you like.'
I sat up. She was finger-combing her hair in the mirror above the chest of drawers, applying make-up. Seeing her in reflection, I noticed something about her mouth. Her lips. Full and sensual, set in something between a pout and a blown kiss, her lips seemed permanently to be slightly parted. I was reminded of those models in ads for telephone sex. But Rosa wasn't posing, not even conscious of being observed. She reached inside her T-shirt and doused each underarm with my deodorant.
'Seen my woolly anywhere?'
'Over there.' I pointed to a corner of the room, where her patchwork-quilt-patterned jumper was spilling from the rim of a wastepaper basket. She retrieved it and pulled it on. The upper portion of her bright green leggings disappeared.
'You never see a girl get dressed before?'
'Have you thought this through?' I asked.
I reached over to the bedside table for cigarettes, lit one and offered the pack. She took a drag on mine instead, releasing a plume of smoke towards the ceiling.
'Yes or no?' she demanded.
'How long for?'
'What if we fuck up?' I said.
'Write to Marje Proops.'
'Marje Proops is dead.'
'Write to her anyway.'
I laughed. 'Rosa, I don't even know you.'
'And me, I s'pose I could choose "The Life and Works of Fletcher Brandon" as my specialist subject?'
I filled my lungs with smoke and exhaled through my nose. There was a half-finished mug of tea beside the bed, stone cold and scummy. Rosa and I had been in one another's company for twenty hours and eleven minutes, give or take.
'How come you've a tan this time of year?' she asked.
'I need to look good on stage.'
'You have a sunbed here, or what?'
'Look, I'm not getting this.'
She went across to open the curtains, bleaching the room with daylight. The bedding reeked of our bodies and beer and stale tobacco. Rosa opened a window.
'I like you,' she said. 'I like shagging you. We could see how it goes.'
'What about where you're living now?'
'I'm sharing with friends. I could always move back there ... afterwards, like.'
'Don't you have to give notice?'
'They won't mind.'
I studied her from the rear as she stared out of the window. 'I don't know.'
'I'm leaving now, so.' She turned. 'I'll come back, or I won't. It's up to you.'
Rosa fetched her belongings. She declined my offer of transport or help with carrying her things, returning an hour and a half later in a taxi with a large suitcase, a backpack, a holdall, dresses on hangers, a full-length cheval mirror, a bicycle, half a dozen heavily pregnant carrier bags and wearing four hats on her head. She said she'd pay the same in rent as she gave her friends and we'd split bills fifty-fifty. I explained to her that I was often away for days on end, doing shows in different parts of the country; she said that was fine because we'd have less time to learn to hate each other. On the Monday, she came home with a black kitten from an animal rescue center.
'Every feller's dream,' she said, 'two females at once.'
'I don't like cats.'
'Your furniture could do with a good scratching, if you ask me.'
The kitten, it transpired, was male, though Rosa persisted in referring to him as 'she'. That was in March. Almost a year later, they were still living at my place, and I hadn't once resorted to necromantic contact with Mrs. Proops. Then, three things occurred to reduce my life to what it is now. The first, I don't want to think about for the moment. The second, I have to; I haven't been able to think of anything else.
I was performing in Bradford. St George's Hall, for one night, the first show of a four-day tour of West Yorkshire that was to include Halifax, Huddersfield and Leeds. St George's is handy for the station, and for Stakis, where I stay when I play Bradford. The hotel is next to an NCP car-park and, from the outside, the two buildings are almost indistinguishable. By leaning out of my bedroom window I could see the front of the theater, bedecked with billboards advertising my show:
Peter Prestige the Prodigious Prestidigitator
Corny and excessively alliterative, I know, but it's grown on me. Peter was my maternal grandfather's name, while Prestige has appropriate etymological roots in the Latin praestigiae, or 'conjuror's tricks', akin to praestringere to tie up, to blindfold. The stage name was chosen for my public debut in the students' union bar at Oxford Poly, with the aid of my friend, fellow student and, subsequently, theatrical agent, Paul Fievre (pronounced 'fever'). It would help keep my feet on the ground, he said, no matter how successful I became. A constant reminder that 'prestige' being held in high regard is, by definition, an illusion. Rosa considered Paul to be even more full of shite than I was.
I was due on in Bradford at nine. I'd spent the afternoon at the theater with my stage assistant The Lovely Kim preparing for the show. Back at the hotel, I ate a light meal and called Rosa from my room; the answering machine played my own voice to me. Half six. She'd probably gone for a drink after work with her colleagues at the newspaper. I left a message and decided to try again after the show.
The act went down a storm, from opener to finale. Kim, typically, played her part to perfection. In two years' working together we've developed a rapport which, according to Paul, produces a sexual frisson that audiences find irresistible. It's as though they're voyeurs watching two attractive people indulging in sophisticated foreplay. Certainly, Kim is no mere 'box-jumper'. She possesses that indefinable, unteachable quality: stage presence. A girlfriend the one prior to Rosa effectively undermined our relationship by her failure to believe that the on-stage aura, the frisson, was nothing more than an act, or to accept my repeated assurances as to the innocence of the time Kim and I, of professional necessity, spent together in rehearsal or away on tour. She tormented herself with the notion of my betrayal. Rosa, in contrast, seemed entirely immune to jealousy or mistrust with regard to Kim, or anyone else. You're good together, she said, the first time she saw my show. And that was that. I thought they might strike up a friendship, but Rosa shaking her head emphatically on an occasion when I expressed surprise that they hadn't replied, 'We're too alike.' As for Kim, she was barely able to mask her dislike of the new woman in my life.
I closed the show at St George's Hall with the Zigzag Girl illusion. One of my favorites visually appealing, entirely angle-proof and suitable to be performed under almost any conditions. The illusion begins with a narrow cabinet standing center-stage into which Kim is shut so that only her face, hands and one foot are visible. I drive two large blades horizontally into the front of the cabinet, dividing it into three. I then slide the central section sideways, completely out of alignment with the top and bottom. An empty space now exists where Kim's middle should be. Her face, hands and foot can still be seen in the upper, middle and lower sections respectively, although her body appears to have been trisected. She is smiling. The cabinet is then brought back into alignment, the blades are removed and the door is opened to allow The Lovely Kim to step out, whole and unharmed. Applause, bow, curtain; thank you, Bradford, and good-night. Of course, these are but the mechanics of procedure; it is originality of performance the showmanship, the rapport between illusionist and assistant, the patter, the sheer panache with which the effect is executed that elevates this illusion (or any illusion) from trickery to magic. We made repeat curtain-calls before retiring to our dressing rooms.
I was removing my stage make-up when there was a knock at the door. I shouted for whoever it was to come in. Two constables one male, one female both in uniform. I broke off from what I was doing and dropped a discolored cotton-wool swab into the bin beside my dressing-table. I sat on my stool, half-turned to face them; I didn't say anything. The WPC took off her hat; I'd have given anything for her to keep her hat on, but she took it off. I'd have given anything for her face to be formed into a different expression. She introduced herself and her colleague. Her accent was broad Bradford. She asked if I was Mr. Fletcher Brandon; I said I was. She named my address in Oxford and asked me to confirm that I resided there with a Miss Rosa Marie Bernadette Kelly. I said yes; I said Rosa was my girlfriend. The WPC was pressing her hat in and out of shape between her hands as she spoke. I kept my eyes on the hat. West Yorkshire police had been contacted, she said, by their colleagues in the Thames Valley. There had been an incident. Those were her words: an incident. She said she was very sorry. And then she told me Miss Kelly was dead.
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An impressive achievementelegantly crafted, utterly convincing and deeply felt.
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Martyn Bedford lives in England.
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This was an interesting book to read, with a far more difficult review to compose as there are so many levels to this story it is often difficult to make sense without spoilers. First I will say, Martyn Bedford mastered the inclusion of multiple layers of depth in this story. A murder mystery at first glance, but so rich with metaphor and emotion, that to pigeonhole it as simply that is doing both story and author a great disservice. By the title, I initially thought that he book would focus more on the magic than the characters, reality versus illusion and those who understand the depth of the illusions they create to entertain their audience. Illusions are described frequently throughout, with the simple lasting impression that the audience (or reader) is meant to find the reality stuck within. Although the whirlwind courtship and relationship between Red and Rosa was ‘real’ and is shown in several flashbacks that incorporate both erotic and more mundane moments, Red soon determines that much of the Rosa that he ‘knew’ was fabrication; the reality shared with him was laden with half-truths and outright deception. As he travels back to find her real history, he is faced with several moments that are both disturbing and provide revealing insight into her history and his own deeply held secrets and shames. Rosa is a highly damaged woman, so as one reads on to discover her history there are insights into the abuse that created such a wounded creature. The language is not flowery, in fact the use of F*** is so prevalent that one becomes numbed to its use. All of the characters are drawn with defined personalities, even Merlin, the cat is detailed and acts within the confines that Bedford has designed. Characters grow as the story progresses, either in the readers understanding of them, or their understanding of themselves. The story is so compelling, with the questions about life, love, reality and illusion, that it breezes by. It is not a simple mystery, nor a simple love story, but facing reality and finding the real truth about who you are, and what you desire and how that meets or misses what you have found. I received an eBook from the author for purpose of honest review for the Jeep Diva. I was not compensated for this review; all conclusions are my own responsibility.
This book will have you enthralled from the get-go. One of those books that you don't want to stop reading, but then you don't want to read it too quickly, because then it will be over.
I picked out 'The Houdini Girl' by chance - it had a cool cover. I am so glad I did. Martyn Bedford had me one the edge of my seat for every second of the book. Even as the final plot was revealed and set in stone, I kept thinking, But how can it be? The novel is sad, happy, strange, frightening and comforting all at the same time. Being a homegirl, I reveled in reading about everyday English life. I both wanted to be and feared Rosa Kelly. It's not often you find someone so mysterious who can make such a mean pancake! I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone. It's wonderful. It's left a great mark on my mind. I mean to read it again soon, and I really think that it's the type of book you can read again and again. I realize that I haven't said anything about the plot of this book. I'm not sure I can. I'm afraid I wouldn't do it justice. I'm afraid I would reveal something. To get the full affect of this great read, I think, you have to be like Red, Bedford's magician main character, and discover the ever-thicke