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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Walter Satterthwait

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To purchase Escapade

Title: Escapade
Author: Walter Satterthwait
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995
Length: 355 pages
Availability: Escapade - US
Escapade - UK
Escapade - Canada
Escapade - France
Eskapaden - Deutschland
  • The first in the trilogy featuring Phil Beaumont and Jane Turner

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good fun, with strongly-drawn characters (including Houdini) and a clever resolution

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 24/12/1997 Helmut Winter
The LA Times . 10/9/1995 Dick Lochte
The Washington Post . 15/10/1995 Pat Dowell

  From the Reviews:
  • "(E)in Landhaus-Schmöker der gehobenen Kategorie (.....) Satterthwait umgibt seine Figuren mit spannungsdienlicher Undurchsichtigkeit, streut für die anspruchsvolleren unter den Lesern historische, literarische und psychoanalytische Reminiszenzen ein, lockert die Ich-Erzählung mit relativierenden Briefen auf und gibt sich viel Mühe, die ironisch unterminierte Gespenstergeschichte mit Witz und Charme anzureichern." - Helmut Winter, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Satterthwait more than makes up for any lack of high-concept originality with a seemingly effortless, beguiling style, and a mesmerizing story, smartly told. (...) There are shades of Agatha Christie's clever plotting, Dorothy L. Sayers' playful tweaking of the British upper-class and the aforementioned no-nonsense private eye who might have stepped from the pages of Black Mask. What more could a mystery lover ask ?" - Dick Lochte, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Satterthwait, who has a knack for poking affectionate fun at celebrities such as Houdini, treats Doyle with a tender respect that is far more touching than the fawning fandom he so often receives." - Pat Dowell, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Escapade, set in the summer of 1921, features Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle visiting Maplewhite, the estate of the Earl of Axminster, for the weekend, at the invitation of the Earl's son, Lord Robert Purleigh. A séance has been arranged, and Houdini and Conan Doyle, both interested in spirits, are to observe -- Houdini, in particular, called in as a 'psychic evaluator', to see whether trickery is involved. The estate is also reputed to be haunted -- there's a house-ghost -- but fortunately the supposedly supernatural isn't really at the forefront of this story (and so, for example, Conan Doyle and the medium only show up almost a third of the way into the story).
       Houdini arrives with Phil Beaumont -- who narrates much of the story --, an American introduced as his secretary. In fact, Beaumont is a private detective -- 'a Pinkerton', working for the famous agency -- who has been hired to protect Houdini. A rival magician with the stage-name of Chin Soo apparently has it out for Houdini and has been hot on his trail for a while, and Houdini's wife insisted that he take precautions; the very professional Beaumont is just the man for the job. The weekend excursion would seem to be a particularly safe getaway, since Houdini's presence there should only be known to a small circle, but Beaumont soon realizes that Chin Soo might be onto their plans -- and, indeed, once things get going at Maplewhite Beaumont worries that: "It was too big a job for one man".
       Even before the authorities are called in -- and they are, both the local police (despite their limitations ...) as well as Scotland Yard -- another of the invited guests shows some interest in rooting around in the strange happenings at the estate, young Miss Jane Turner, who works for and is accompanying the demanding and opinionated Mrs. Marjorie Allardyce. While Beaumont's narrative makes up the bulk of the novel, letters Jane writes to a friend of hers back in London are interspersed in the narrative, providing another perspective, and some insight into some of the other events (as well as her thinking); this (and the fact that Escapade is the first in a trio of Beaumont-Turner novels ...) signal from early on that she plays a significant role in the story.
       Lord Purleigh might be high nobility, but he's an avowed (if not entirely convincing) Bolshevik, swearing by Marx. He asks his guests to call him 'Bob', and has plans for the grand estate once the old man, the bedridden Earl -- paralyzed, his son explains, after a riding accident three years earlier -- dies and he inherits; they include making it a golf club for the "toiling masses" ("Poor chaps don't get enough fresh air, do they", he explains). His wife, Lady Purleigh, and their daughter Cecily are less enthusiastic about his plans .....
       There are several other guests invited for the weekend, and already in the first night there is a ghost-alarm -- with Jane the one who encounters it. And the next day someone takes a shot at several of the guests -- a poacher, the Lord is convinced, but Beaumont worries it might already be Chin Soo, with Houdini as the target. And then another gun goes off, in the Earl's locked room; when the locked door is broken down, it appears that the old geezer shot himself -- the only reasonable explanation, given that the room was locked from the inside and there seems to be no other possible way out. And there are all those small items that seem to have gone missing .....
       As Conan Doyle soon admits:

I've begun to suspect that something very strange, and very sinister, is occurring here at Maplewhite.
       The local police aren't much help, but when an Inspector Marsh of the C.I.D. shows up from London with a Sergeant in tow a proper investigation begins; considerately, Marsh allows Beaumont to follow his investigations closely, and various clues and avenues are pursued. Houdini wants to take off -- to meet his beloved wife back in London, as she is feeling indisposed -- but Beaumont convinces him he has to stay, given the circumstances. Making the best of the situation, Houdini decides he'll simply have to solve the case(s) himself, leading to a sort of friendly competition between him and Inspector Marsh.
       Satterthwait plays this out very nicely and quite adroitly; only as the final pieces fall in place does he resort to the authorial sin of elision. After Beaumont had always been so forthcoming in his account, suddenly he is withholding:
     "Okay, Harry," I said. "You've figured things out. But you're going to have a hard time proving it."
     He raised himself up to his full height. "I have a plan," he announced.
     "And Phil," he announced, "there is one additional matter I have discovered."
     "What's that ?"
     He told me. Miss Turner made a small gasp.
     "Yeah," I said. "I know that."
     "But ... how ?" he said. I had never seen him look surprised before. "How could you know ?"
     I told him.
     "But what shall we do, Phil ?" he asked when I finished.
     I smiled. "I have a plan."
       It's a necessary fudge -- keeping the reader in the dark -- in order to allow for the truly nice dénouement, the characters gathered together in one room and the mystery revealed. And it is, indeed, very clever, as Satterthwait has first Inspector Marsh and then Houdini offer their solutions to the various goings-on and (previously) inexplicable occurrences. It's an inspired final twist that he pulls off well -- though this is the kind of mystery-story which readers never could have figured out for themselves. But it is a very satisfying (and fun) resolution.
       Conan Doyle is a somewhat secondary figure in the novel, more intermediary and facilitator than active participant, with Satterthwait also presenting him very much as too-credulous figure regarding all matters supernatural. Houdini, on the other hand, is very much front and center -- amusingly presented as supremely self-confident (and somewhat oblivious). So sure of his abilities, he tramples easily ahead, with Beaumont a good sidekick, reining him in where necessary but also acknowledging that the 'Great Man' (as he often refers to him) is, in most every respect, in a class of his own.
       A bit of romantic-sexual tension in the air also adds some spice to the story, without becoming too distracting, from Cecily's interest in Houdini (and insistence that she isn't a nymphomaniac) to the heat between Beaumont and another of the ladies to Beaumont and Jane slowly coming to appreciate one another, and each other's talents ("He is, perhaps, rather more useful than he appears to be", Jane comes to realize). And the old (and then dead) Earl also proves to have had more life in him than expected.
       Satterthwait doesn't go nearly as far as Gilbert Adair does in his (slightly later-)period-mysteries such as the Evadne Mount trilogy (e.g.) as far as comic pastiche goes, but he shows a fine dry sense of humor and he gets the English setting and characters well for an American; he's also a bit truer to the genre than Adair (for whom the (language- and other) play is the thing) -- more, say, Michael Innes perhaps. Beaumont, with his American attitude and approach and just the right amount of deference, and the supremely confident Houdini as fish slightly out water also work well, while the use of another voice and perspective (in the sympathetic Jane Turner) -- though not strictly necessary -- is a pleasant enough diversion along the way (and does help set the stage for the next instalments in the series). .
       Escapade is a bit far-fetched -- including in relying on quite too many disparate elements in its conclusion -- but is still very satisfying and cleverly turned. A very enjoyable read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 April 2020

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Escapade: Reviews: Walter Satterthwait: Other books by Walter Satterthwait under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Walter Satterthwait lived 1946 to 2020.

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