Sleightly Murder by Patrick A. Kelley (1985)

In five years, Harry Colderwood has gone from a successful magician with his own TV special, to performing shows on the small-town mall circuit in Central Pennsylvania. And that’s not going so well either, since he just got fired from his most recent gig. Which is why he accepts when L. Dean Morrow hires him to look into some bothersome poltergeists. But then his client is found dead from a dive off a four-story garage. 

Harry’s career may be in a downward slid, but he can still pick out misdirection when he sees it. And someone is trying to misdirect him, right into a set up for murder. Hard-nosed cop Paul Fetterman thinks Harry knows more about Morrow’s death than he’s saying, so why does he want him out of town? Wanda Morrow, the non-grieving widow, wants to know why her husband is dead, and she’s willing to pay Harry anything to find out. Joyce Gildea, the beautiful blonde reporter wants a story, and needs Harry to give it to her. 

Released in 1985, Sleightly Murder is the first of five books by Kelley featuring magician Harry Colderwood. It was also a finalist for the 1986 Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original. Now, 1980s American detective fiction is not something I would normally read—ok honestly, I would never read it. But the weight of TomCat’s reminder that, in an ill-advised comment on his review of Sleightly Lethal I may have said that I would read this one if I found it, has been nagging at me. So here we are…

First, it’s hard for me to pinpoint just where this fits in the detective fiction sub-genres. Kelley seems to be trying to evoke a hard-boiled vibe. The characters are cynical and world-weary, the locales dark, dreary and dodgy. Unfortunately, his attempts to emulate the sharp wisecracks, derisive tone, and moody atmosphere of noir falls well short of the mark.

“With her low-cut dress and two-tiered pearl necklace, she was definitely not dressed for housework.”

Things start out interestingly enough, but then Kelley begins to meander through subplots, which although meant to be red herrings merely serve as filler or minor distractions, to a conclusion that is far from surprising. The reader would also likely never piece things together based on the clues provided (shoe polish, magnets and erasers?), but that matters little since there is really only one viable suspect. Characters are introduced as significant but neither they, nor their possible link to the crime are ever fully developed. Even that one suspect, and rather obscure motive, is ignored for the majority of the story. Ignored until, in what feels like a rush to bring the story back to the point, and a conclusion, Harry suddenly begin following another line of inquiry. And finally, the reveal, in which Harry does a sort of Jonathan Creek as Poirot turn, ticking off the various points in the case as he performs his minor feats of illusion, just falls flat.

But there were a couple of things that I did like about Sleightly Murder. I enjoyed being able to revisit a locale that I knew as a child, and have returned to many times in my life. Kelley set his story in the fictional “Baylorville” Pennsylvania, which is a not so thinly disguised Altoona—right down to the city park with it’s bust of JFK. Also, the too few scenes with aging magician Aldo Gastini (and his dancing handkerchiefs). Kelley would have done well to introduce Aldo into the story earlier. Oh the potential that was missed by not using this character as a comic foil to Harry throughout.

So, not a great mystery and I don’t think I’ll be revisiting the Colderwood series in the future. I’ll leave that to TomCat, as I seem to remember he did say that he was “still going to read Sleightly Invisible”. Over to you TC…

Calendar of Crime – October #4: Halloween 

7 thoughts on “Sleightly Murder by Patrick A. Kelley (1985)

  1. Magic and the puzzle novel are such a tantalising combination, it’s a shame this one falls down (ad isn’t even an impossible crime by the sounds of it…apostasy!). Why take two of the finest ingredients possible and mix them to such an unappetising result?

    If you ever do get the urge for a vaguely hardboiled American puzzle/detective novel — and you may not — I can recommend Leonardo’s Law (1978) by Warren B. Murphy.

  2. TomCat

    First, it’s hard for me to pinpoint just where this fits in the detective fiction sub-genres.

    I suspect Kelley wrote this series with a TV deal in mind and tried to write it like a 1980s TV crime drama. Everything from the dialogue and light plots to the colorful cardboard characters (clowns, magicians, mediums, etc) and settings all impressed me as designed to be easily reworked into a TV script without too many changes. And, if this is true, you have to wonder if NBC’s Blacke’s Magic flopping in 1986 slammed the door on his scheme.

    Anyway, your timing is almost perfect. My review of Sleightly Invisible scheduled for the end of the month.

    You can’t give up on 1980s detective novels without having sampled the grand-scale locked room mysteries by Herbert Resnicow. The Gold Deadline and The Dead Room are my personal favorites and come highly recommended.

    1. I loved Blacke’s Magic! But then I also loved The Magician (Bill Bixby 1973). Magician/detectives don’t do so well on TV in the US 🙄.

      So you recommend Resnicow and JJ says try Leonardo’s Law (1978) by Warren B. Murphy… so I guess I’ll have to keep trying those American authors. Every once in a while I find one I can put up with.

      Can’t wait to see what you thought of Sleightly Invisible…and if you’d like to take a stab at Sleightly Murder, I’d be more than happy to send you my copy😜.

    2. I loved Blacke’s Magic! But then I also loved The Magician (Bill Bixby 1973). Magician/detectives don’t do so well on TV in the US 🙄.

      You recommend Resnicow and JJ says

      Can’t wait to see what you thought of Sleightly Invisible…and if you’d like to take a chop at my review of SM I’d be more than happy to send you my copy😜.

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