The Amazing Arden is the most famous female illusionist of her day, renowned for her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage. One night in Waterloo, Iowa, with young policeman Virgil Holt watching from the audience, she swaps her trademark saw for a fire ax. Is it a new version of the illusion, or an all-too-real murder? When Arden’s husband is found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, the answer seems clear.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this audiobook. I’ve enjoyed the narrators’ work previously and the blurb sounded interesting. The story, about a female illusionist in the late 1800’s/early 1900 accused of her husband’s murder, starts quite slowly but I was soon drawn into Arden’s tale, beginning with her childhood on a farm and moving through the reasons she ran away. Her time at the Biltmore Estate, as a dancer in New York and her eventual introduction to her mentor, Adelaide, who trains her in the art of illusion.
In 1905 the Amazing Arden was established and admired, well-known for the ‘Halved Man’ illusion during which she appears to saw a man in half, except on this particular occasion she used an axe and a few hours later the bloody body of a man thought to be her husband is found at the theatre.
Then I will close the show, as I always do, with the Halved Man. I will cut a man in two, severing him through his trunk, and he will scream for mercy as the blood pours forth…….Then I will heal him. He will spring up whole again, wiping away the blood from an expanse of flawless skin, as if there had never been a wound. My healing powers are legendary, though no one really knows their true extent. They don’t know how I wish away my own injuries, the cuts and bruises, the burns, the broken bones.
Arden is arrested by local policeman, Virgil Holt, and taken to the police station where she’s handcuffed to a chair. The story alternates between Arden’s past, as narrated by her in an attempt to prove her innocence, and the present told from Virgil’s point of view. Arden tells her complicated story well, the part of the past that follows her, and the fascinating insights about life on the road, the illusions and how they worked. And yet throughout I was left wondering how real her account is. Is she playing for time until she can make her escape or is she telling the truth about everything that happened? Virgil can’t decide whether he believes her or not, but he’s not in good place and his personal and work problems begin to outweigh his professionalism.
I had mixed feelings by the end of the book, more good than not though. I love Arden’s story and the fact some of the characters and events are real. The description of the fire at the Iroquois theatre is masterfully written and the reality of Adelaide Herrmann lends authenticity to the story. The things that didn’t work so well for me are the lack of noticeable character development, the fact the villain was able to recover from one kill stroke but not the other and the ending was a little disappointing. But it’s a fascinating approach to a very interesting subject. Both narrators were excellent.
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Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist whose work has appeared in publications such as The North American Review, The Missouri Review, and The Messenger. Her plays have been performed at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. She lives with her family on the East Coast. Her debut novel THE MAGICIAN’S LIE was a weekly or monthly pick by Indie Next, LibraryReads, People Magazine, SheReads, PopSugar, Publishers Weekly, the Boston Globe, and Audible.com.