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Historical Mysteries

The Last Illusion, Rhys Bowen, Minotaur, $24.99.

The Last Illusion by Rhys Bowen

Reviewing a new Rhys Bowen book is hardly a hardship assignment, but since she's visiting the store this April, I figured I'd better grit my teeth and get to it. As usual I whipped through the newest Molly Murphy book embarrassingly quickly, as Bowen's narrative skills, as always, engaged me completely.

In this outing, Molly is on the cusp of marriage to her policeman, Daniel Sullivan, who fondly thinks that Molly will go ahead and give up detection and independence once they are married. Sometimes I think poor old Daniel doesn't know the feisty, gutsy Molly as well as Bowen's readers do. No way is she going to give up a scrap of independence to be a "normal" married lady, but in this volume they're only engaged.

The real meat of the story lies with magician Harry Houdini. Molly and Daniel have taken a rare free evening to go out and see a night of theatrical "illusion", but things go very badly wrong when the trick where the woman is sawn in half actually ends with her—sawn in half. The theater of course is closed down, and Molly takes Harry Houdini's hysterical wife to her dressing room to calm her down, and along the way picks up a new client.

Mrs. Houdini wants Molly to take over her work as Houdini's assistant and work alongside him, to protect him from whatever kinds of dangers are apparently lurking backstage. When one of Houdini's tricks goes badly awry, he reluctantly agrees to his wife's plan.

While this is a pretty classic locked room mystery (girl locked in an actual box) Bowen brings some very fresh elements to the table, and there's lots of humor concerning Molly's unsuitable size—she's apparently much larger and taller than the average magician's assistant and she has to have a costume specially made that will fit her. (Attention, Project Runway fans—this is a pretty delicious moment).

The atmosphere of 1903 New York is, as always, beautifully captured by Bowen, and the story, which swoops along and takes in some political elements along the way will sweep you along with it in Bowen's assured hands. There's hardly a greater narrative pro at work at the moment, and there won't be a devoted reader out there who won't be delighted by Molly's newest adventure. Here's to hoping marriage will never tame the Molly we've all come to know and love.

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