In the year 1899, nearly simultaneous events bring two wildly different beings of old-world magic to the new world and send them searching for the meaning of their existence, just like millions of other lonely, homesick immigrants on the shores of 20th-century America.
Give a Chicago private eye a magic wand, and what do you get? Well, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, mostly. But Harry Dresden is a wizard of our time—a little rusty with high-tech gadgetry, to be sure, but also a VW Beetle-driving, pop-culture-riffing, very human wizard. One reviewer frequently quoted in jacket blurbs of the Dresden novels likens him to a mash-up of Philip Marlowe and Merlin. But actually, he’s a lot more like Richard Castle combined with Harry Potter. If you really want your wand-wielding detective hard boiled, you should try Mick Oberon. He has the period for it: the 1930s, the age of bootleggers and Chicago gangsters like Bugs Moran and Al Capone. He also has a shoulder holster in which he packs a high-caliber wand, best used for giving and taking luck and maybe spinning the occasional glamour. He talks in a clipped voice loaded with period slang, like “flivver” for “automobile” and “gink” for “man.” He could almost have stepped out of a pulp novel by James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler. Only, he isn’t human.
More than five years ago, I reviewed “The Boy Who Saved Baseball” by this author, who is totally not the actor from Three’s Company. In that review, I said that I planned to read more of his books in the near future. I was true to my word, but only to the extent that I have had this book and another by the same author on my shelf all these years. It’s no reflection on my feelings for baseball fiction (which are generally warm) or for this author (intrigued, respectful). It’s just an occupational hazard of being a book junkie whose shelves are jammed two books deep with titles I’ve been planning to read for ages. So many books, so little time!
The trail of “things to read after Harry Potter” has already led me past many books in which real-world characters get mixed up in the world where fairy tales and children’s stories are real. Off the top of my head, these include the work of authors Chris Colfer, Eoin Colfer, Ian Beck, Frank Beddor, Michael Buckley, Marissa Burt, Michael Ende, Lev Grossman, Tom Holt, Lisa Papademetriou, and Sarah Beth Durst; even if I’ve forgotten twice as many, my point is made. If you’ve been following developments in my book review column, you might appreciate the variety that gives spice to this theme.
In this sequel to “The Ruby in the Smoke”, several years have passed. The year is now 1878, and Sally’s business as a financial consultant is growing, together with her partnership with professional photographer Webster Garland, his dashing nephew Frederick who moonlights as a private detective, and their cockney friend Jim Taylor, who haunts the backstage of London theaters when he isn’t writing melodramas or helping Fred and Sally. It is Jim who brings Fred his latest case: a stage magician named Mackinnon fears for his life after receiving psychic impressions of a murder committed by a powerful industrialist.
What I never realized until now, on finally reading the story as Stevenson wrote it, is how different his novella is from any and all of the dramatizations, abridgements, contextualizations, and “for dummies” versions on the market. The popular idea of what this story is about is also quite out of order. It isn’t about split personalities or “dissociative identity disorder.” It is about a man’s struggle with the conflicting powers of good and evil within his one personality, and the tragedy that takes place when he experiments with a drug to separate the two. It is a story about the course of a life-destroying addiction, together with a man’s losing struggle against moral corruption, guilt, and the terror of justice.
Though a wistful shadow lies across this book, perhaps in consequence of its author’s failing health, it remains like all her novels a romantic comedy: romantic, because no subject drew on her experience more than the drawing-room society of well-bred and well-off men and women trying to catch wives and husbands; comedies, because she couldn’t dwell long on the subject without an ironic laugh.