Article 18: Magic in Fiction


Something New

Ben Huizenga - Round Table Member #047

I like when I'm reading a novel and some interest of mine pops up in the novel as a plot point, or a dramatic device or whatever. It makes me happy. Like Walter Tevis' novel The Queen's Gambit, which is about the life of a chess prodigy, and there's one chapter where she meets another chess player who likes chess problems, those puzzles that use chess pieces as the elements of logic problems? And she solves his problems easily and they move forward in a friendship, I love that sorta thing. 

Or in the Sherlock Holmes story, the Dancing Men, where Holmes has to solve a substitution cipher using frequency analysis, I love that. I do those sorts of cryptograms all the time. It's just genial and ebullient to have some little interest confirmed in fictional form, it's like putting on a fancy costume. So I deeply enjoy whenever magic shows up in fiction, like the ending scene of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, or the recent novels about the Golden Age, The Prestige, Magic for Beginners, and all the others. 

My two favorite moments of magic in fiction are both based on sleight of hand. The first is from Dorothy Sayers, the famous English crime writer. Dorothy Sayers wrote detective novels about a sleuth named Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey is an Edwardian gentleman, who does all sorts of neat things. He collects rare books, fine wines, fancy cars. He owns and operates a secretarial agency which he uses as a private domestic espionage service. And he's deeply familiar with all sorts of deceptions. One story has him mastering lock-picking, another has him teaching his associate the rudiments of psychic chicanery so that she can gather information from a gullible target. Maybe the most fanciful of all his stories has him masquerading as a flat out wizard in the Pyrenees, with spells and scrolls and mumbo-jumbo galore, to impress superstitious villagers into helping him rescue a kidnapper's victim. Do these sound fun yet? They really are.

But the one that I'm writing about is called the Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker. Wimsey's trying to stop a blackmailer who likes to gamble, and he maneuvers the situation towards a showdown game of cards at his club, where sleight of hand plays the ultimate role. I'm trying not to give away the ending, of course. This is in a collection called Lord Peter Views the Body, if anyone wants to look it up. When I was re-reading it to write this, I was struck by how much games-playing there is in these stories. Costume changes and parlor games and all sorts of apparent twists. In the Lord Peter universe, life looks like one big game of Charades.

The other story is by Roald Dahl, and it's in his collection The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. The title story of that collection, by the way, is great fun. It's about a bored rich guy who one day happens to find a small book about a guy in India who studied with a yogi and learned to see without using his eyes. He takes this discipline and uses it as a performer, doing blindfold drives and trick shots and such. The guy reading the book is a serious gambler and decides to teach himself this power so that he can see through playing cards and make a mint. It's flipping great, I won't continue lest it spoil.

But the first story in the collection is the one I'm thinking of, it's called the Hitch-Hiker. It's one of the first stories I can remember reading for myself as a child, so there's probably some deep childhood stuff wrapped around in it for me, and I hope it is actually as good a story as I'm presenting. Basically the narrator of the story stops to pick up a hitch-hiker who eventually proves to have serious sleight of hand skills, which come into play unexpectedly during their journey. I really can't say more without ruining it, which is such a drag when trying to recommend fiction. I'm always having to say "You just gotta read it, it's great." So, you just gotta read it, it's great.

If anyone else knows of some seriously good instances of magic or sleight of hand in fiction, let me know. If we can get enough together, we could print an anthology. There are some pretty good anthologies of chess in fiction, games in fiction, why not magic?

Toodle pip.


Where do you see magic in fiction?