Miss Shumway Waves a Wand, James Hadely Chase

I picked this book up because of Rough Magic, the 90s film starring Bridget Fonda and Russell Crowe that was based on it. I loved Rough Magic because of its magic realism–fantastic things happen, and while people are still surprised (as in some magic realism stories), they do take it in stride. Plus, it’s an incredibly funny film. I looked for years for this book, then it fell off my radar. A month ago, it popped up surprisingly, and I had a chance to read it on a recent plane flight.

The movie’s plot is unlike the book’s, although characters and situations appear, just not in the order or for the same motivations. But the style and the tone are nearly identical, as is the magic realism. Basically, Myra Shumway is a magician who quits the stage and uses her sleight of hand abilities to relieve gullible men of their wallets. Russ Millan is a reporter who sets out to find her based on a reward Myra’s father has put up for her in New York to find her. She ends up pick-pocketing a couple of con men, who when they finally catch up to her, not only want their money back, but her assistance in acquiring a sure-fire snake bite cure from an Indian medicine man who is convinced he is about to die, but not before he is visited by the white goddess, for which Myra could be a very close approximation.

All of these characters are dishonest (well, perhaps with the exception of the medicine man, but there’s some question there as well) but lovable rogues. Unfortunately, they run into other dishonest, but not quite so lovable rogues in addition to the long-suffering police who have to deal with this bunch. It makes for a fun run, made even more so by the magic that emerges from the character interaction (not to mention the talking dog).

Is this great literature. By no means. James Hadley Chase was a pulp writer, and these characters and these situations are entirely unbelievable. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t great entertainment nor that lessons could not be gleaned from it. Chase here does a hard-boiled update on Thorne Smith, mixing the whimsy and fantasy that was the best qualities of Smith with the characters and situations that Chase focused on in his normal ouvre of crime potboilers. The combination worked for me, but then i was primed to like it based on the movie.

[Read 4 October 2015]

Comments are closed.