The storytelling formula Stuart M. Kaminsky employs in his madcap mysteries featuring low-rent, World War II-era Los Angeles private eye Toby Peters has proved remarkably successful over more than a quarter century. Each entry in this series (beginning with 1977's Bullet for a Star) finds Toby taking on a celebrity client; being beaten silly at least once during the ensuing investigation; contending with a supporting cast of misfits ever eager to supply ludicrous asides; and eventually, despite meager expectations of his genius, unearthing clues enough to expose a murderer. Yet even with all those familiar ingredients in place, Now You See It, the 24th Peters tale, doesn't capture the magic of its recent predecessors.
Which is ironic, since this yarn is all about magic. Toby, now pushing 50 and freshly partnered with his brother, choleric ex-homicide cop Phil Pevsner, is hired in June 1944 to protect "the worlds greatest living magician," Harry Blackstone. It appears that a wealthy but demented rival, "third-rate parlor magician" Calvin Ott, intends to ruin Blackstone's reputation while simultaneously enhancing his own. However, his process of humiliation seems more than a tad extreme, involving not only slaying a seedy PI during Blackstone's buzz-sawing-the-girl-in-half illusion, but also shooting the deceased's "tiger lady" girlfriend. Prepared to curb Ott's scheme, Toby is surprised when Ott himself is done in--knifed in the back of the neck during a formal reception in Blackstone's honor, with more than five dozen witnesses unable to identify the perpetrator. Quite a trick, especially as it leaves Blackstone with means and motive for committing the crime. In order to save the white-maned prestidigitator, Toby must find a phony waiter and a phonier turbaned gunman, stomach punchlines from comic Phil Silvers, enlist the swashbuckling talents of leading man Cornel Wilde, and--riskiest of all--submit to the oral ministrations of his pal Shelly Minck, "the devils dentist."
There's a swell twist closing out this book, which proves once again the devious desirability of misdirection. And Kaminsky's decision to begin his chapters with excerpts from the old Blackstone, The Magic Detective radio show enhances both his tale's theme and its period flavor. At the same time, though, the formula of this series is strangely underaffected by Toby and Phil's new business relationship, and a swordplay scene, while entertaining, is gratuitous and unbelievable. Following two celebrated Peters outings, To Catch a Spy and Mildred Pierced, Now You See It conjures up comparatively little novelty. Kaminsky may have to pull a rabbit out of his hat next time to stay on top. --J. Kingston Pierce
From Publishers Weekly
When PI Toby Peters answers the bell for the 24th time, his footwork is as nimble as ever, even if the dance will be familiar to fans of Kaminsky's Hollywood historical series. The celebrity-friendly detective has aided every kind of star from Errol Flynn in the first book (Bullet for a Star) to Joan Crawford in the most recent (Mildred Pierced). Toby often earns gratitude, frequently reaps scars and bruises, but never garners the kind of riches likely to change his boarding-house lifestyle. As WWII appears headed for a close, the great magician Harry Blackstone, who's been challenged and (apparently) threatened by a third-rate competitor, approaches Toby. Now teamed up with his brother, Phil, Toby undertakes to protect and unmask Blackstone's nemesis. Kaminsky makes an art of interjecting bits and pieces of period color, from Toby's dilapidated Crosley auto to 1940s songs or jingles. The running madcap humor includes landlady Irene Plaut's endless memoirs and dentist Shelly Minck's wacky inventions. Murder transforms Blackstone from magician to suspect and leaves him holding the bag, with predictably enjoyable results. Intriguing but simple magic tricks borrowed from Blackstone: The Magic Detective radio show serve as clever chapter lead-ins.
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