Last week, I declared my love for meta-fiction: fiction that lets one know that the story is fictional and invites the reader into the illusion. I said that I liked being in on the joke. When I said that, I wasn’t thinking about stories told by magicians. The illusion, perhaps ironically, doesn’t hold up here because one can never be sure if there is a trick or not. In The Magician’s Lie, by Greer Macallister, the Amazing Arden tells her entire life’s story to try and convince a policeman to let her go. Like that officer, I’m not sure if I’ve been lied to or if Arden’s story is true or if it’s something in between.
Officer Virgil Holt was horrified when he saw the Amazing Arden’s Halved Man illusion. Who wouldn’t be shocked to see a man apparently chopped in half by a woman wielding an ax? When the body of the magician’s husband is later found stuffed inside the Halved Man cabinet, it’s logical that Arden was the one who did it, either accidentally or on purpose. Then Holt captures Arden fleeing the scene. When she’s safely locked to a chair with a series of handcuffs, Holt asks Arden why she did it. By way of proving her innocence, Arden takes us back to the beginning, when she was Ada Bates, the daughter of a cellist who ran away with a poor man.
Ada always had a knack for performing. She wasn’t a talented musician like her mother, but she was a skillful, self-taught ballerina. Mother and daughter work to harness Ada’s talent to get her out of the Tennessee backwoods where the family lives. It might have worked if it hadn’t been for Ada’s twisted cousin, Ray. Ray hasn’t been right since a fever killed his sisters and nearly killed him. He believes he has healing magic and hurts animals to prove it, before turning on Ada. She repeatedly flees Ray before finding sanctuary as a laundress, then New York dancer, then magician’s assistant.
Holt frequently interrupts Ada—now Arden—urging her to get to the murder. Arden puts him off as much as possible, while ridding herself of handcuffs. Most of The Magician’s Lie, in spite of Holt’s urgings, is autobiography. A few facts here and there make Holt (and the reader) question Arden’s account. There are a lot of montages. The real action doesn’t happen until the 75 pages (or so) of the novel. I felt almost as frustrated as Holt while Arden spun out her story. Then, at the very end, everything happens.
Was there a trick? I suspect there was, but I’m not sure what it was. We only hear what Arden wants us to hear. As a murder suspect, she has no reason to tell the truth and her story is a little too good to be true. And yet, if her story is true, Arden becomes a hero and a villain was vanquished. I suppose one can read the story either way.