Escaping from Houdini, the third volume in Kerri Maniscalco’s YA murder mystery series, opens on New Year’s Day 1889 aboard the RMS Etruria, a transatlantic ocean liner sailing from Liverpool to New York. The passengers include teenaged forensic scientist Audrey Rose Wadsworth and her partner and love interest, Thomas Cresswell, who have come straight from the site of their latest bloody adventure—Dracula’s castle in Romania.
Audrey Rose describes the pair’s professional collaboration: “[Thomas] and I were well-versed in our macabre roles, having practiced many times in more than one country. It seemed no matter where we went, death followed, and like greedy misers, we stored data away, profiting in a sense, from loss.” This weeklong voyage is no different: before the first evening is out, a young woman is murdered, and Audrey Rose and Thomas must begin a new investigation.
Also aboard ship is a troupe of entertainers called the Moonlight Carnival, engaged by the captain to provide an elaborate nightly show including sleight-of-hand, contortionism, fire-swallowing, knife-throwing, and the death-defying escapes of an as-yet-unknown performer named Harry Houdini. “His dark hair was parted down the middle and when he flashed a smile, dimples greeted the crowd,” Audrey Rose says of Houdini. “There was a presence about him, though, something that felt like a charge in the air before lightning struck.”
The Moonlight Carnival is led by a charismatic masked ringleader known only as Mephistopheles. As the murders continue throughout the week—with bodies often discovered during the show and some victims grotesquely posed as tarot card figures—the clues seem to lead back to Mephistopheles.
To get close to him, Audrey Rose must shed the reservations of a proper Victorian lady without falling completely under her suspect’s dangerous spell. Easier said than done for a young woman whose choices are almost completely dictated by her station and her family but who is nevertheless determined to pursue a scandalous profession. When invited by the performers to try the trapeze, Audrey Rose admits its attraction: “In this moment I understood the draw of the carnival—the magnetic pull to run away from restrictions and simply let go. To allow myself complete and utter freedom to soar.”
As the week drags on, the luxuriously appointed Etruria begins to feel like “a floating prison” or “a metal dragon, flying low over the sea.” The sails resemble “the wings of some enormous sea creature hunting fresh meat.” And the covered passageway by night is “more akin to an open mouth, waiting to chomp down on guests.”
Everyone is suspect and no one feels safe. But the more time Audrey Rose spends with Mephistopheles, the more she finds him brilliant, alluring, and a bit of a kindred spirit. He employs scientific methods to produce illusions, while she uses them to reveal the truth. “Crime scenes were filled with their own sort of sleight of hand,” she realizes. “Murderers tried fabricating scenes, manipulating them to cover their true intentions and identity.” Nevertheless, it is her job to solve the mystery and unmask the murderer, even if it means destroying the magic of Mephistopheles and his performers in the process.
Young adult readers of crime novels will thrill to Maniscalco’s labyrinthine plot and the gruesome secrets it reveals. And yet Escaping from Houdini is also a love story, one in which Audrey Rose’s love for the charming and stalwart Thomas is tested by the exhilarating freedom represented by Mephistopheles’s unorthodox lifestyle. As one member of the Moonlight Carnival muses, “Normal is boring. Extraordinary is memorable.” Like-minded readers will find Maniscalco’s latest foray into nineteenth-century forensic investigation anything but boring.
A graduate of Auburn University, Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.