Hiding the Elephant:How Magicians Invented the Impossible, by Jim Steinmeyer

Fact based account of some of the major names from the "golden age" of stage magic in the early part of the twentieth century.

I think I was prompted to get this after doing some background reading about The Prestige, and it does seem like the story in that book (conjurors trying to steal one another's tricks) was more based in fact than I'd appreciated.

While this book was perhaps not as compulsive a read as The Prestige it was nevertheless extremely readable. The author is himself professionally involved in magic, and has designed tricks for David Copperfield etc.. So as well as telling the story of the characters, he spends a fair amount of time explaining the some of the tricks they did - all of which, he emphasises, are already in the public domain.

Generally, finding out how a trick is done is a bit of a let-down, but what Steinmeyer reminds you is that the effectiveness of magic is less about the mechanical details than the delivery and presentation: magic is an art form, and the best performers were artists (I've given the book away now and forgot to make notes but he made some quite good points along these lines).

So Houdini, for example, is shown (by this book) to have been a rather awkward presenter of magic tricks: he knew how to do perform them, and for the earlier part of his career he did include a range of different illusions in his show, but his lack of finesse meant that they didn't impress: the eponymous trick of making an elephant disappear was a mainstay of his show for some time, but because of the way it was staged, it wasn't actually that impressive. And it was this lack of presentational skill that led to Houdini concentrating more on the escapes which he's remembered for now.

One thing which surprised me was how many of the illusions described were essentially variations on a theme, and that there were a lot of tricks that were simply "all done with mirrors".

One notable exception to the "oh, is that all" feeling was with "The Mascot Moth" (which appeared in a stage show that Steinmeyer worked on) which has a woman disappear in a flash, and even though I now know how it's done, I still find it hard to believe when seeing it on youtube.

The only slight criticism I have of the book is that I didn't get as much of a sense of the different characters as I'd expected: with the exception of Houdini, all the magicians he described seemed to blur into one another. But I think this might well be because I was more interested in the story of who developed what trick and how it was done.

All in all, a really interesting and readable book.

Completed : 12-May-2013

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