Books about Magicians

If you’re interested in reading books about magicians, here are some suggestions. If you’re looking for books to teach you magic, you’ll find them in a different section of this website.

Although I love Harry Potter, I’m not generally a fan of fantasy fiction, so my recommendations below are, on the whole, novels about (or at least featuring) professional conjurors and illusionists; they are not, on the whole, about people with supernatural powers. Some of these novels have only a tangential connection to magic but I’ve included them because they seemed to me to be in the same ballpark as books about magicians, in terms of atmosphere or subject matter, and I thought you might find them interesting.

A word of warning for any lay people who don’t want to know how magic is done: some of these books give away some quite big secrets. If you like the sound of one of these books but are worried about finding out too much information, please feel free to contact me and I’ll let you know if that particular book is safe!

Want You Dead by Peter James

This, the tenth novel in Peter James’s extremely popular series about Brighton-based detective Roy Grace, features as its baddie magician extraordinaire Bryce Laurent, a character made up of all anyone has ever loathed about magicians. It’s part of an increasing trend to depict magicians in fiction, which must reflect the increasing interest in watching and finding out about magic, and as such is to be welcomed, though I can’t say it will encourage its readers to perceive magicians more favourably…

Because this book has only recently come out, I’ve reviewed it separately. You can read my full review here.

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold

A fictionalised biography of the early twentieth-century American magician Charles Carter. Mystery, suspense, adventure, romance and lots of magic: history and imagination combine to create a rollicking yet nuanced tale of the Jazz Age. Illusion abounds, on many levels, as Carter deals with being implicated in the murder of President Warren G Harding, experiences the excitement and pain of his destined love life and explores the emerging technology of the era, while all the time working on the magic that led him to be dubbed (by Houdini, according to this account) the Great.

I found the character of Carter fascinating and inspiring, to the extent I’ve got one of his show posters on the wall. This book has been out for over a decade and you’ve probably already read it but, if you haven’t, I recommend it.

The Houdini Girl by Martyn Bedford

A magician falls in love with an Irish girl, who moves in with him for a year but then mysteriously disappears. He follows the trail from Oxford to Amsterdam and finally uncovers the sad truth of what happened to her.

Magic and illusion infuse the whole plot, though they’re counterbalanced by harsh, gritty realism. This book came out only a couple of years before Carter Beats the Devil and I don’t understand why it hasn’t been reprinted. It’s a compelling, if somewhat disturbing, thriller and I couldn’t put it down.

The Magician’s Wife by Brian Moore

Based on the true story of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, this novel raises interesting questions about the ethics of magic. In the 1850s, Napoleon III is having trouble keeping control of the natives in the French colony of Algeria, since the Muslim marabouts, holy men with reputedly magical powers, are encouraging the tribes to rebel against their infidel rulers. Resolving to beat the Arabs at their own game, the Emperor sends Europe’s leading conjuror, Henri Lambert, to establish French authority through superior magic. The magician’s wife accompanies him on this sometimes hair-raising expedition.

This may not be the raciest read but the subject is fascinating, particularly because it’s true, and the ‘magic-offs’ are riveting.

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

Alternating between present-day narrative and the diaries/memoirs of two Victorian illusionists, the tale unfolds of the bitter feud that leads the magicians to devote their lives to destroying each other’s acts, if not each other. This book is well written and involving but, in the end, it’s science-fiction and in my opinion the plot gets a bit out of hand.

The author acknowledges the influence of HG Wells, who wrote (amongst several more famous works) a short story called The Magic Shop.

The Prestige was made into a Hollywood film (see Films about Magicians), which changes the ending and is generally much more earth-bound, though it does maintain one crucial element of sci-fi.

The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh

Set in Glasgow, London and Berlin, this is a story about a Scottish magician who is struggling to make a living and gets mixed up in a murder mystery. It’s thoughtfully written, has some memorable scenes and is quite entertaining to read, but I have two reservations about it. What spoilt it for me as a novel is that it’s told from the point of view of the central, male character and I couldn’t buy into this; William Wilson is a very unconvincing man. What I disliked as a magician is how freely Ms Welsh reveals big secrets of magic. These secrets are not hers to expose and the depth and scope of the plot are nothing like significant enough to justify revelations of this magnitude.

52 Ways to Magic America by James Flint

An interesting book for new magicians, as we follow Marty Quick on his quest for fame and fortune as a British illusionist. Dreaming of making it big in Vegas, he works cruise ships and the clubs and bars of provincial England, planning, manoeuvring, struggling. Beyond describing what it’s like to live this kind of life, the novel is a commentary on the state of the British nation in the wake of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and in the infancy of the internet.

The characters are well drawn, though none of them (to me) likeable. I found it somewhat stifling as a story but fun for the shows, competitions and the magician’s journey.

The Spirit Cabinet by Paul Quarrington

Both funny and sad, this book depicts the lives and insecurities of a disparate set of Las Vegas magicians – principally Jurgen and Rudolfo, who are based on Siegfried and Roy. Although Paul Quarrington was what he described as “an (extremely) amateur magician”, I think this novel owes more to the fact that both his parents were psychologists.

The foray into the realm of science-fiction I find forgivable, on the grounds that a central theme is exploring the line where conjuring meets real magic. At one level, this is an amusing spin through the colourful, eccentric, often gross world inhabited by the characters (and, by extension, all of us). At a deeper level, it’s a study of what magic means to different people and a reflection on the implications of growing up and losing our sense of wonder.

Tales of the Impossible by David Copperfield (Author and Editor)

A collection of 18 original short stories about magic, illusion and fantasy, from master magician David Copperfield and other writers. Rather hit-and-miss, in my opinion, but it’s illuminating to see how non-magicians view magic and what sort of ideas occur to them when requested to write a story about it. DC has added a little introduction to each one, which ties the volume together nicely.

The War Magician by David Fisher

This book was recommended to me by Josh Jay, while I was driving him to Birmingham for a lecture and we were discussing books and films about magic and magicians. It’s about the part played by the great magician Jasper Maskelyne during the Second World War, using the art of illusion to deceive the enemy and maintain the morale of the Allied troops. I have to say, I don’t think it’s very well written and the fact that the author is American is painfully obvious in the dialogue. However, there are some good bits of story and I’d love to believe it’s all true.

The Vanished Man by Jeffery Deaver

A detective story, set in New York, about a conjuror-turned-criminal, who carries out a series of gruesome murders based on stage illusions and evades arrest (until the end, obviously) using misdirection and quick-change techniques. The case is investigated by paralysed criminologist Lincoln Rhyme and his partner Amelia Sachs, a policewoman, with help from a young female magician.

Fast-paced action with a magic-centred plot makes for easy, entertaining reading. It’s a bit contrived in places but I was carried along and had to know what happened.

The Magician’s Tale by David Hunt

Another murder mystery, this time set in San Francisco, and although the magician is pivotal to the story, he remains mostly in the background. The central character is a woman (whom the male author brings to life absolutely convincingly, in my opinion) working on a photography project in a seedy part of town. When her gay prostitute friend Tim disappears, she gets drawn into a murky, sometimes macabre world, where very little is what it seems.

I’m surprised this book isn’t a lot more popular. It’s original, evocative and engrossing.

The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett

After the death of Parsifal the magician, the assistant who loved him finds out who he really was. A far cry from the fast, gritty, explicit whodunnits recommended above, this is a quiet, beautiful, enchanting book. Magic plays an important part and, as is so often the case, illusion is also a metaphor for the life and character the magician created for himself.

If you’re in the mood for a well written, understated story of grief and closure, I suggest you buy and enjoy this without reading even the blurb, let alone any reviews. Although the revelations about Parsifal’s past are secondary to the exploration of Sabine’s feelings and how she comes to terms with her newly acquired knowledge, you’ll get the most out of this novel if you go in with no expectations and allow the tale to unfold in its own time.

The Illusionist by Anita Mason

This fascinating book was lent to me by Marc Oberon. It’s based on the true – or, anyway, documented – story of Simon Magus, a magician living a decade or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus, whom many people at the time mistook for the Messiah. In an echo of the battles of magic in The Magician’s Wife (see above), Simon ends up pitting his conjuring against the miracles of St Peter in Rome.

Magic, theology, sex and violence all collide in this unusual and profound novel. The Illusionist was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and has been quoted on several occasions in the writings of Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Completely different from Anita Mason’s The Illusionist and yet with characteristics in common, The Master and Margarita is one of my favourite books ever. I’ve read it at least three times and bought copies for practically everyone I care about. Don’t be put off because it’s Russian literature; it’s extremely entertaining!

The Devil comes to Moscow and puts on a magic show. It falls to the Master, who is writing a novel about the trial and crucifixion of Christ, and Margarita, his devoted lover, to stand up to the ‘magician’ and his bizarre retinue. High adventure and comedy on the surface; allegory and symbolism underneath – loads to think about and enjoy on many levels.

Affinity by Sarah Waters

In Victorian times, with spiritualism at its height, a lonely woman becomes a prison visitor at Millbank in London and finds an affinity with Selina Dawes, a medium who has been jailed following a séance that ended badly. The novel encompasses both of their stories and the one they create together.

Although Sarah Waters has a bit of a reputation, this book is subtle, discreet and gripping. The action moves slowly but the effect is atmospheric and enveloping. I read it for a reading group and didn’t expect to get as involved as I did – and the fact that the plot is underpinned by magic was a bonus.

The Mesmerist by Barbara Ewing

Also in Victorian London, Miss Cordelia Preston, a strong woman now in her 40s, comes to the end of her acting career and decides to open a practice as a phreno-mesmerist. As if this wasn’t scandalous enough (to set up a business without the backing of a man!), Cordelia finds herself implicated in a murder.

Including The Mesmerist on this list is a bit of a stretch, I admit. I’ve done it because, although the now discredited ‘science’ of phrenology doesn’t come up much these days, mesmerism has strong links to mentalism and to stage hypnotism. I found this a powerful book and I can still call much of it vividly to mind, many years after I read it.

The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston

Another novel with the title The Illusionist, this time by Irish author Jennifer Johnston. Stella meets a man on a train, who charms her with magic tricks. He soon persuades her to marry him and they go on to have a daughter. As time passes, the conjuror (no, illusionist, as he always insists) becomes more and more secretive, detached and controlling. Finally, the doormat wife can stand it no longer and leaves both her husband and their child, Robin. The man is not what he appeared to be and has cast a spell over Robin so that she believes him to be wonderful and her mother to be at fault.

There’s a bit of magic in the story but mainly it’s about the symbolism: the illusion of love. This novel is an excellent depiction of dysfunctional relationships. As I said in the context of David Copperfield’s book of short stories, it’s interesting to see how the rest of the population perceives magicians. Perhaps it’s just an easy, off-the-peg metaphor, or perhaps people really do think of magicians as duplicitous and manipulative.

Mr Lucky by James Swain

For a bit of fun, try this high-speed caper about gambling. Small-town loser Ricky Smith strikes it lucky in Las Vegas – and goes on striking it lucky until the casino gets suspicious. Tony Valentine is called in to investigate and pretty soon the guns are out. This is the fifth in a series of books about Tony and his son Gerry (who helps out with investigations, when he’s not actually making matters worse) but the story stands alone and you don’t need to have read the previous ones.

The prose is clunky and a bit irritating but it’s not pretending to be literature. The great thing is the author is a serious magician; the magic techniques used for the various scams are clever and make for a good story. As I say, it’s a bit of fun and, as such, I certainly enjoyed it.

The Dime Museum Murders by Daniel Stashower

Former magician Daniel Stashower is a prize-winning writer of both fiction and non-fiction, with a great interest in Sherlock Holmes (and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) and Harry Houdini. With this background, he has written three novels featuring a young Houdini, still struggling to make a name for himself, as he solves seemingly impossible crimes using his knowledge of magic and stagecraft. The stories are narrated by Houdini’s brother, Dash, and for this reason, along with Houdini’s character and attitude, Dash appears to be in the Dr Watson role – though this is deceptive. Houdini’s wife, Bess, plays a part too.

These are light, entertaining little mysteries and in my view the series improves as it goes along. The Dime Museum Murders is the first one, followed by The Floating Lady Murder, and the third one is The Houdini Specter.

Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone

I debated for some time as to whether this book belongs in this section, since it’s not fiction, but for the moment there is nowhere more accurate to put it, so here it is.

Alex Stone, a young(ish) American magician, took part in the FISM World Championships of Magic in Stockholm in 2006 and, let’s say, didn’t do very well. He then set about improving himself – his knowledge, his technique, his style and every other aspect relevant to the performance of magic – and this memoir is the record of his journey. But it’s also much more than that because what the author learns he shares with us and it makes fascinating reading. History, physics, maths, psychology and neuroscience all come to life as Alex applies their lessons to the refinement of his magic act.

This is an ideal text for an aspiring magician to read. It’s well written and intelligent, entertaining and undemanding, and it shines light into some dark corners of the conjuror’s world. Although I don’t agree with everything in it (mainly Alex’s stance on secrecy), I found this book educational and inspiring and I recommend it to anyone interested in magic and the arcane subculture that is the magic community.

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