Paul Quarrington's Spirit Cabinet (Random House Canada, 304 pages, $32.95) is a zany comic-mystery that centres on a pair of German-born misfits, Jurgen and Rudolfo, who, through a series of fateful occurrences and misadventures, become celebrated Las Vegas magicians. While supplying but scant insight into the subterfuges employed by professional theatrical magi, Quarrington does provide an abundance of absurdly incongruous events and situations that take the reader on a riotous ride of sheer hilarity.
The story opens with Preston the Magnificent, Jr., another (less celebrated) Las Vegas magician glowering at people as they enter a theatre. We soon learn that these people are gathering not for a magic show, but for an auction of a collection coveted by every Vegas magician and previously the possession of one Erlich Weiss, a man better known by his stage name, Harry Houdini. One item is particularly sought after: the Davenport Spirit Cabinet, which Houdini had purchased "with great ardour and prized... above all other possessions". The collection, however, is not to be sold off piece by piece, but in its entirety, greatly inflating the price for any prospective buyer. When the bidding commences, it quickly becomes evident that the only serious contenders are Jurgen and Rudolfo and Kaz, a rival magician of great wealth and hideous halitosis. When the bidding reaches the $4.8 million mark, however, Kaz, in a highly comic scene, bows out.
With the stage set, Quarrington fills in some biographical background on his protagonists and Miranda, their remarkable thaumaturgical assistant. A native of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, who one day decided to run away to the circus, Miranda's function is primarily that of a visual "red herring". Blessed with a phenomenal physique, Miranda complements it with a facility for squeezing into the restrictive confines of not only the briefest of costumes, but also various boxes, trapdoors, and such. Her character, though, extends beyond mere ornamentation: she proves to be a valuable confidante and genuine friend to the duo, and an inspiration, ultimately salvation, to Preston.
The portions of the book concerning the early lives of Jurgen and Rudolfo in Germany and how they came to be partnered in a highly successful Las Vegas act are some of the most outrageously ridiculous and improbable, but enjoyable passages. Other equally entertaining minor characters include the pair's managers, Miss Joe and Curtis Sweetchurch (the moment of the former's disappearance at sea is a comic gem), Preston the Magnificent, Sr. & Jr., General Bosco, Barry Reno, Mrs. Antoinette Kingsley, Emile Zsosz et al. Quarrington draws memorable portraits of the kind of people who, having proven themselves unsuitable for more conventional vocations, invariably seem to gravitate to the hinterlands of respectable society-namely, show business. This rag-tag assortment of social cast-offs stumble, cavort, and blunder along in search of something that, one suspects, even they would be hard-pressed to define with any degree of accuracy.
The best instance is Rudolfo's anxiety and frustration with the disturbing behavioural changes exhibited by Jurgen since his purchase of "The Collection". From the beginning, Jurgen is mesmerized by "The Davenport Spirit Cabinet" and, to Rudolfo's great consternation and distress, spends increasingly extended periods of time within the creation, from which emanates an eerie, otherworldly light. The enigmatic allure of the cabinet, the disturbing transformation in Jurgen (who has begun to appear happier, "lighter", and somewhat obsessed with adding a new twist to their act in the form of the famous Hindu Rope Trick), and the mysterious nocturnal happenings, usually witnessed only by their albino leopard, Samson, propel the reader toward the novel's denouement.
The number of temporal shifts and italicized passages that seem to function as didascalia may initially bewilder and/or confuse the reader a bit. However, the reader would profit from soldiering on, as Quarrington's bountiful and engaging vocabulary, his delicious facility for facetious irony, and, above all, the storyteller's expertise, make The Spirit Cabinet a highly entertaining experience from first page to last.