Elephants in the Distance (1989) by Daniel Stashower
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
Published in 1989, this was Daniel Stashower's second mystery novel. Not an entry in his Harry Houdini series, Elephants in the Distance takes place in the present day. Like the Houdini series, however, this one features illusionists and magicians—several, in fact.
The book opens with a third-person prologue in which an aging professional magician, Josef Schneider, is performing at a child's birthday party. For many years he had been a headliner in theaters in Europe and the United States, during the heyday of the great magic acts which included Blackstone, Kellar, and Thurston. Mourning that era's passing, Schneider nevertheless continues to practice his arts on a vastly smaller, less glamorous scale. While blowing up balloons and shaping them into animals for the children, Schneider begins to feel ill. Ultimately he collapses and dies of an apparent heart attack.
Beginning with chapter one, the story is related in the first-person by Paul Galliard, son of the late Thomas Galliard, a magician who died while trying to perform the dangerous "bullet-catch." Paul, a history professor who gave up teaching while in the midst of writing his doctoral dissertation to become a professional magician himself, learned his craft from Schneider—a friend of his father's—who began to mentor him when Paul was eleven. After Schneider dies, Paul inherits his prop case.
One afternoon at a TV studio, where Paul is shooting a commercial for a product called "Stain Begone," he takes a break between takes to have coffee with the woman he's been seeing for several months, Clara Bidwell. Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Paul's boss and his young son. To entertain the boy, Paul begins to do some card tricks and to teach him a little about how they're done. The boy really wants Paul to "make a balloon" for him. They walk back to the studio where Paul takes some balloons from Schneider's prop case, blows them up, and begins to shape them into animal forms. A few minutes later he goes into convulsions and collapses, awakening in a hospital.
Recalling that Schneider died while doing exactly what he did, Paul examines the pump in the prop case. It has clearly been tampered with, which means Schneider had to orally inflate the balloons. Paul takes a handful of the balloons to a friend of his from his teaching days who works in a research lab at the college. She subsequently determines that the nozzles of the balloons were coated with a drug called isoproterenol, which is typically used to treat bronchial spasms and which also contains a cardiac stimulant. Paul is now certain that Schneider's death was not from natural causes, and that he himself, being much younger and healthier, was lucky to have suffered only a seizure.
I don't want to give too much more of the story away here, lest I spoil it for potential readers, because it contains quite a few surprises, some of which date back to World War II. Suffice it to say that Paul's investigation leads to further attempts on his life and to a couple of additional corpses before the murderer is unmasked—when Paul, in an exciting climax, undertakes to recreate the bullet-catch trick for a nostalgic TV special.
Elephants in the Distance, a brisk, fairly-clued mystery, should appeal to readers who enjoy the Great Merlini mysteries of Clayton Rawson. Although his plot is less complex than those in Rawson's novels, Stashower's sense of pace is better, his style leavened with dry wit, his hero more believable than Merlini because he's more fallible.
If you can find a copy, this one is well worth your time.
Barry Ergang ©2011
Formerly the Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2007 Derringer Award in the Flash Fiction category, Barry Ergang’s written work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. For links to material available online, see Barry’s webpages. Remember, too, that he has books from his personal collection for sale at http://barryergangbooksforsale.yolasite.com/ He'll contribute 20% of the purchase price of the books to our fund, so please have a look at his lists.