NOW YOU SEE IT … by Richard Matheson
Sixty years after the publication of his first short story, ‘Born of Man and Woman’ in 1950, Richard Matheson is probably still best known for such tales of science fiction and fantasy as The Incredible Shrinking Man and the oft-filmed I Am Legend, as well as for his many television scripts for the original version of The Twilight Zone. Indeed much of his publishing career has run in parallel with his work as a screenwriter, not only adapting many of his own works for the screen – most notably the diabolically suspenseful Duel (1971) for Steven Spielberg, the terrifying Hell House (1973) and the ethereal and romantic Somewhere in Time (1980) – but also a notable series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in the 1960s starring Vincent Price as well as Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out for Hammer Studios.
But he is a varied and prolific writer with literally dozens and dozens of scripts, short stories and novels to his credit who outside of the fantasy genres has also written westerns, non fictions studies of metaphysics and philosophy – and several thrillers. One the most unusual of these is Now You See It … (1995), which combines mystery, suspense and magic and which, as we shall see, has a complex history all its own.
The art of the conjuror is often compared to that of the crime writer for the way that they both stage manage situations to lead an audience up the garden path to create an air of mystery – John Dickson Carr in fact based many of the gimmicks in his stories around effects developed by the likes of Maskelyne and other great illusionists. Several magicians have also written excellent detective stories over the years, most notably Clayton Rawson, creator of The Great Merlini, and Walter Gibson (aka Maxwell Grant), the original writer of The Shadow (Paul Malmont’s The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril incidentally features Gibson himself as a character). James Tucker, Patrick A. Kelley and James Swain have all written series combining mystery and magic, though amongst the most unusual additions to the genres one has to include the Lord Darcy series, science fiction hybrids by Randall Garrett which offer traditional detective stories but set in a parallel world in which magic is real and not just an illusion. Harry Houdini has appeared as himself in many novels over the decades, including such mysteries as William Hjortsberg’s Nevermore (1994) and Carter Beats the Devil (2002) by Glen David Gold.
My personal favourite however remains Magic (1976) by William Goldman, about a magician who is also a ventriloquist and which pulls a particularly clever bit of misdirection with regards to the narrative point of view in the opening 100 or so pages. I was reminded of this when reading Now You See It … as it also opens with a startling admission from its startling narrator:
Daresay you’ve never, in your life, read a story written by a vegetable. Well, here’s your chance. Not that it’s a story. It happened; I was there. Your narrator and humble servant, Mr. Vegetable.
Emil Delacorte was once a great stage magician known as ‘The Great Delacorte’ but after suffering an incapacitating stroke the mantel (literally and figuratively) has been taken over by Max, his loving son. Emil is now mute and completely paralysed, confined to a wheelchair, only his eyes now able to move and give a hint of his undimmed consciousness. On 17 July 1980 he witnesses a complex game of cat and mouse play out in ‘The Magic Room’, the study in the house he built where Max now lives with his second wife Cassandra. It is decked out with a casket, a revolving inlaid bookcase, a fireplace with ornamental weapons planed above the mantle and even a suit of armour. Emil will be our narrator, expressing only to us his anguish and surprise as events unfold. Surprise is the main emotion though as Matheson piles twist upon twist and reversal upon reversal, right from the opening scene in while we think we see blonde bombshell Cassandra await the arrival Harry, Max’s agent, for a romantic assignation only it turns out that we are actually looking at her brother Brian dressed up as her.
It transpires that Cassandra and Harry have been having an affair and are plotting so as to get Max to agree to modernise the act and give her a more prominent role in the show. His last few engagements have been disasters – Emil, to his horror, discovers that Max has been making serious mistakes during his recent performances, his co-ordination and timing disastrously off. When Max comes back from his walk he admits to Harry that his eyesight and hearing are failing and that he seems to have lost some of his dexterity on his fingers, fumbling various attempts at sleight of hand as they speak (silently encouraged by Emil who only wants the best for his son). Despite this Max refuses to change the act and play less sophisticated venues – he knows about Harry and his wife’s affair and has every intention of getting his revenge on both of them. After various double acts and feints the ‘first act’ concludes with Max shooting Harry in the chest and poisoning Cassandra with a blow dart. While Emil understands Max’s anguish over his betrayal, he cannot forgive the murders he has committed. Max takes him out of the room to give his father some lunch and then returns him to the room – Harry’s body is gone but Cassandra is still slumped on the floor. While Max is out of the room we see a sheriff look through the windows, see the woman’s body and rush in. At which point she wakes up in a stupor and stuns Emil, who proves to be an often witty narrator:
Cassandra screamed. The Sheriff gasped. I almost filled my pants.
Emil is getting used to his son’s games and surprises and as the afternoon progresses there will be many more when Max, who has called for the sheriff, admits that he killed Harry but won’t admit to where he has hidden the body, challenging the others to find it. To say any more about the plot would be to completely spoil the book, though many by this point will have guessed that this is very much in the tradition of such classic stage plays as Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth and Ira Levin’s Deathtrap (both of which have been turned into films starring Michael Caine). Indeed the debt to the former is really quite large – they both deal with a cuckolded husband confronting and then shooting his wife’s lover, with the second half of the play starting with the arrival of a policeman who has been called to the scene and concludes with an extended hunt for a hidden body in the husband’s home. The main difference is that, this being a novel, everything is filtered through our narrating ‘vegetable’, an interesting device which allows us to feel sympathy for at least one of the characters as the main protagonists all prove to be a fairly despicable bunch. But there is a little more to Matheson’s original choice of narrator, one that relates to the novel’s origins.
In the 1970s Matheson had hoped to have his stage play Magician’s Choice produced on Broadway with a cast led by Jack Palance, Susannah York and Paul Dooley but it never came to fruition and eventually some 20 years later the drama was turned into Now You See It … The action in fact never leaves ‘The Magic Room’ and Emil acts as an audience surrogate, a narrating proxy to explain the stage action and directions while the dialogue of the play remains more or less intact. It’s an odd device and there are obvious limitations in transferring a drama in prose form while retaining the strict physical confines of the original setting. This problem is equally true in adapting a play for the screen when, as in Sleuth (either of the two movie adaptations, both starring Caine of course), the use of disguises which would work fine in theory on stage due to the physical distance between the actors and the audience, is largely undone by closeups. In a novel this is not even remotely a problem, but using a narrator does create some issues of credibility as Emil is yes in a very big room, but it isn’t that big so it is hard to believe that he doesn’t see through some of the stage devices that Matheson has left in his story and which clearly would have worked much better ‘live’.
Despite these limitations, clearly imposed to try to preserve in prose form a very ‘theatrical’ stage work, and perhaps too close a resemblance to some better known examples of the genre like Sleuth (as well as the wonderful, but very hard to obtain 1979 TV movie, Murder By Natural Causes by the team of Levinson and Link and which was also about a magician plotting against his wife and her lover as they plot against him), this may feel like a curious hybrid but it has ingenuity to spare and a narrator you’ll be really rooting for. It’s a breathless read and if you like mystery and magic combined, this could very well be for you.