Some of the most enjoyable historical dark fiction I’ve read over the past few years has come from the pen of Lisa Mannetti. With prose that is intriguing, literary, and always inviting, Mannetti is one of a few authors that I never seem to get enough of. From her 2010 full length novel, The Gentling Box, to her novella collection from earlier this year, Deathwatch, Mannetti never fails to immerse (and enlighten) a reader into the culture of her period pieces, all the while delivering a tale that is entertaining and irresistible.
With, The Box Jumper, Mannetti transports us to the mid-1920’s as she details the later years of, Harry Houdini shortly before his death, and then up to the 1950’s as we follow along with the adventures of the books narrator, Leona Derwatt. Leona was Houdini’s personal assistant on and off the stage, and she was also one of Houdini’s mistresses. The story in The Box Jumper (a term used for the assistant who would jump out of one box on stage to another during illusions) is Leona’s, but it never strays far from Houdini.
We follow along with Leona as she is taken into Houdini’s confidence and taught not only the tricks behind the magic, but how to debunk other magician’s who profess their powers to be supernatural. The two become a team, with Leona often doing undercover work for Houdini by getting into the good graces of fake mediums or those surrounding them. We see the results of this early on during a séance when Houdini and Leona expose a medium who has convinced, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a friend of Houdini’s, that she can communicate with the dead.
The tension in The Box Jumper falls into two distinct categories. The first concerns Houdini’s exploits when dealing with fake mediums and how they might have been complicit in his death. The second involves Leona’s run-ins with those same fake mediums later in her life, and their attempts to silence her. But, as we read further into the story, we realize that Leona may not be of sound mind.
If I had to write one word to describe The Box Jumper, I would use the word, surreal. Between the flashbacks and flash forwards, the medical crisis Leona faces, the emphasis on Houdini’s obsession with missing children, and Leona’s visits to the deceased Houdini’s house, there is a hallucinogenic quality to the narrative that is quite compelling. There are enough scenes in The Box Jumper where Leona is drugged, medicated, or in an altered state where they may put her entire story in doubt.
Though a novella, The Box Jumper is not a quick read. I took my time to savor the passages where the author explained how some of the magician’s tricks were performed. I also enjoyed her descriptions of the various seances Leona and Houdini attended. The cat and mouse game between Leona and the magicians was also exciting, as was the ending of the novel which I thought was extremely surreal.
The Box Jumper proves once again that when it comes to historical dark fiction, nobody does it better than, Lisa Mannetti.
(This review is from an advanced reading copy)
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