Review: Eli Marks, Books 1-3

the-ambitious-card_coverThis is my first time combining reviews and I don’t plan to do this often. I saw a tempting review a while back by FictionFan for The Miser’s Dream, the third Eli Marks mystery by John Gaspard. Books 1 & 2 aren’t strictly required to understand the third, but they sounded fun so I started at the beginning. The general premise of the series is that a magician, Eli Marks, helps solve crimes between performances and shifts at his uncle’s magic shop. I love this angle. When I was a kid, I bought every magic set and trick deck I could find; I’d have enjoyed these books even if Eli never left Uncle Harry’s magic shop. Their strengths and weaknesses are fairly consistent so it made sense to write a single review to spare you all the repetition. [Note: The books aren’t repetitive.]

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All three books, The Ambitious Card, The Bullet Catch, and The Miser’s Dream are named for magic tricks. The murder mystery in each book ties in with the titular trick. Eli is pulled into investigations via his proximity to the murder and/or victim, but this doesn’t feel overly contrived. Eli’s experience in showmanship and sleight of hand offers him a unique perspective. The professionals are willing to indulge him on this account, but it surely helps that his ex-wife is an Assistant District Attorney and her new husband is Homicide Detective Fred Hutton. Eli always refers to Homicide Detective Fred Hutton by his full name and title to annoy him. (There was overlap between Eli and Homicide Detective Fred Hutton in the affections of ADA Deirdre Sutton-Hutton so Eli finds little ways of injecting pettiness into their interactions.)

I like Eli’s sense of humor—his inner monologue is a big part of each book—but it occasionally works against him.

“This is not a social visit,” he said, stepping into the shop. Another man—another detective I assumed—followed him in.
“Well, that’s too bad,” I said. “Because personally I don’t think we socialize nearly enough.”
“Yeah, right,” he said, recognizing my subtle sarcasm and returning it in kind. (AC, 59)

Even out of context, it’s perfectly plain that these last two lines of dialogue are sarcastic. Gaspard has laid plenty of groundwork in creating Eli’s sense of humor and his relationship to HDFH, but in this (and in similar exchanges), it seems he doesn’t trust the reader to pick up on the interplay. Nothing kills subtlety like pointing it out. While writing, I worry that a reader will misunderstand or overlook sarcasm, but then I remind myself how much I dislike over-explained dialogue and force myself to strip out these clarifications. This is one of my biggest pet peeves with dialogue… and yet I kept reading. Why?

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Because the mysteries are legitimately fun! Bodies had a funny habit of turning up just when I thought I’d worked out the means/motive/opportunity for the original crime. For such lighthearted and humorous books, these pack a surprising body count. There are plenty of mysteries out now in which the mystery is unraveled by a uniquely placed Regular Guy, but the magician angle is well-used and allows Eli to endear himself to the reader. Who doesn’t love a good magic show? (No one, that’s who.) I really admire the way Gaspard preserves the magic for the reader—Eli uses thinking and techniques from his act to construct a theory of the crime, but doesn’t pull the curtain back too far, not even to solve a crime. There’s no moment when he says, “The woman is in the box the whole time and there’s a trapdoor and that’s how I know who the killer is.” The Ambitious Card rides this line best: the book begins with Eli debunking a psychic in his capacity as a skeptic. He doesn’t spoil the psychic’s act, but performs a similar routine of his own and makes it clear that his performance is only a trick, not genuine magic. Some broad strokes from this act frame the action going forward. It’s a brilliant plot device and as much as I’d like to know how some of the tricks are performed, I’m in agreement with Eli: It’s more fun not to know.

I preferred The Ambitious Card and The Miser’s Dream to the second book, The Bullet Catch. While it had a great premise, the mystery’s solution was less satisfying because the otherwise great technique of hiding magical mechanics rendered The Big Reveal a trifle flat. I liked the funny/serious balance best in The Ambitious Card if for no other reason than that I adored Franny, a phone psychic who can only read your fortune over the phone (if you’re in her house, she’ll have you go into another room and call on your cell). She’s emblematic of the great cast around Eli: everyone is a bit quirky and entirely lovable.

Overall: 4.6 I’ve been reading more mystery books lately and these are the most fun. Also, I’ve been watching YouTube videos for simple card tricks, so they’re having a positive effect on my imagination.

Translation: Read them. All three! 🙂

Semi-related a.k.a. I need to unburden myself:
When I was a kid, I saw one of those magic worms (a fluffy, neon pipe cleaner with googly eyes) doing tricks with some guy in the mall. The worm was crawling around his hand, up his arm, and into and out of a glass. I spent all my money to learn that the magic was a bit of fishing line. You were supposed to tie the worm to a belt loop with the invisible line and then, between hip manipulations and moving your arm, you could make the worm look like it was moving. I was a twitchy kid, but I couldn’t make the hula-hooping look natural. If I extended my hand without moving my hips and the worm crawled up my arm (sorry, he’s shy!) it was really obvious the worm was attached. The worst moment was when I dropped him and he “landed” a few inches above the floor. The only creature entertained by my act was the cat who wasn’t allowed to play with the worm. This is how I learned the meaning of the word DISILLUSIONMENT.