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