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Book Reviews

DANGER IN THE DARK: A Houdini & Nate Mystery by Tom Lalicki

By Tom LalickiDanger in the Dark is the story of Nathaniel Makeworthy Fuller IV.  Nathan is almost 13 years old when we meet him at the beginning of the story.  He is the only son of his widowed mother, Deborah, and they live with Nathan’s deaceased father’s Aunt Alice–and have since Nathan’s birth and his father’s death.  Aunt Alice has always been a bit severe and it has never been a cheerful home, but with the advent of a new (and frequent) visitor to the home things have turned decidedly worse.

The new visitor is David Douglas Trane. Nathan cannot put his finger on what it is about Trane that so alarms him and he is not exactly sure what it is Mr. Trane is doing in these secretive meetings in the salon with his great-aunt and his mother, but he knows they both look sadder and more worried than before.

That summer, for the first time, instead of playing at the beach Nathan is hired out to a friend of Aunt Alice’s to learn about business.  Nathan becomes a “dogsbody”–the lowest clerk in a shop sho must do all the drudgery work–at Bennett & Son Gentlemen’s Hatters.  It is in the course of this employ that Nathan meets the great Harry Houdini.

Sent by his superior to the Houdini home to collect payment Nathan meets Bess and Harry Houdini face-to-face.  Both Houdinis take a liking to the young boy–whom Houdini quickly christens “Nate.”  Nate unburdens himself to the Houdinis that afternoon about Mr. Trane and his family.  The Houdinis quickly realize that Trane is a medium, someone who purports to be able to communicate with the spirits of the dead–in this case, with Aunt Alice’s dead husband Arthur and her beloved nephew (Nate’s father). The Houdinis fear for the safety of Nate and his family and immediately launch into action to help them.

Harry Houdini, in real life, believed it his mission to reveal as many of these fraudulent mediums as possible.  He was appalled at the idea of vulnerable, grieving people being bilked of their savings by unscrupulous swindlers who took advantage of the real pain which enveloped these individuals.

Lalicki accurately and believeably entwines Houdini’s zeal for ferreting out these criminals, his well-known affection for children (one of his and Bess’ greatest disappointments was that they had no children themselves) and his magnetic personality with the lives of Nate and his family.

The plot is tightly constructed and PACKED with exciting action, danger and suspense.  The result is an excellent mystery/adventure with a likeable young hero and a perfect historical representation of Harry Houdini, exaggerated just the right amount to portray him as Nate’s mentor, champion and friend.

I will caution those who would like to use it as a read-aloud that there is one moment (about 3/4 of a page) where Nate & Houdini have a discussion about the word “bastard” when Nate uses it in correct context and Houdini lectures him about the crudeness, inappropriateness and lack of necessity to use that particular word.  If I was reading it aloud I would simply skip that part completely and continue: it is a nice male role model moment for Houdini and Nate but the plot loses nothing by omitting it.

I highly recommend this for readers who enjoy suspenseful mystery and adventure–and for anyone who is interested in or already has knowledge of Harry Houdini. Sid Fleischman’s biography of Houdini The Great Escape Artist is an excellent companion piece to this story.  (Lalicki has a biography out of Houdini as well, but it is not particularly well done–his fictional work far surpasses it.)

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