The Search for America's Greatest Sleight-of-Hand Artist

By Karl Johnson

Henry Holt. 349 pp. $26


A Curious Tale of How Magic is Transforming America

By Christine Wicker

HarperSanFrancisco. 275 pp. $24.95


By Don Bell

Vehicule. 260 pp. Paperback, $17.95

Soon after he emerged on New York's magic scene in the 1920s, Dai Vernon revolutionized card tricks, transformed them into art. He was, in the words of Karl Johnson, author of The Magician and the Cardsharp, "magic's Picasso, its Hemingway, its Duke Ellington"; he handled cards "with a gentle grace, coaxing such startling effects from them that even the most experienced magicians were flummoxed."

Vernon achieved his mastery through careful study of the methods of the greatest card artisans of them all -- cardsharps, for whom sleight-of-hand is very serious business. Johnson's book is the story of Vernon's quest for one of these sharps, a man who was said to perform a maneuver so difficult that it may as well have been real magic: the center deal.

Whereas traditional card-dealer sleights involve sliding the second or bottom cards from a deck while appearing to deal from the top, dealing from the center would require extraordinary -- if not impossible -- skill. Vernon heard of the center deal occasionally as he traveled among magicians and gamblers while honing his craft. "Even among the most gifted of the cardsharps," Johnson writes, "this virtuoso remained just a rumor, a fairy tale. . . . With a single deal from the center of the deck, this cardsharp could make all the rules and the very laws of chance itself vanish." But Vernon didn't believe the fairy tale; the center deal was impossible.

Then in 1932, the magician went to visit a Mexican cardsharp in a prison in Wichita, Kan., to see if he had any good slights. He asked the cardsharp -- who was in jail not for gambling but murder, "You've played cards all your life, have you ever seen anything you don't understand?" He had. "In Kansas City," he said, "I see a fella. He deals cards from the center of the pack." After a long search, Vernon found the virtuoso; his name was Allen Kennedy, and he worked as a dealer in the gambling paradise of Pleasant Hill, Mo.

With the verve of a master storyteller, Johnson follows Vernon and Kennedy through their development as artisans, pausing here and there to dip us headlong into the vibrantly portrayed worlds of the magician and the cardsharp. Magician is part biography, part portrait of an age and part quest narrative. Mostly, though, it is a celebration of the simple ideas that great beauty can be created from something as ordinary as a deck of cards and that the pursuit of that beauty is a project worth a lifetime's dedication.

A card trick approaches true magic in Vernon's hands, but it isn't the kind of magic that journalist Christine Wicker is looking for in Not In Kansas Anymore. Wicker begins her tale at a vampire ball, telling us, "I had come to this costume party looking for magic, not the tricks of conjurers but the real stuff, the kind of magic that bends reality to a wizard's will." Wicker sees more and more Americans involved in magic, and she believes these people have something to tell us. "Serious journalistic looks at what today's magical communities might have to say to us," she writes, "are rare to nonexistent. It is into that void that we will now step."

Certainly, talking to people who believe in and practice magic is a fascinating proposition, but Wicker quickly shows that her definition of magic encompasses a lot more than the "real stuff." In her view, magic was "going mainstream" in the '70s and "went even more mass-culture" in the '80s with positive-thinking seminars and the self-help movement. "We're uncovering our inherent potential, our inner wisdom . . . That's magical," she writes. "Every bit of that is magical thinking."

Her investigation, too, proves much more personal than she had initially let on. A few chapters in, Wicker tells us she suffers from a tremendous fear of bad magic, the type that means if you say the wrong thing as your husband walks out the door, something terrible will happen and he won't come back. In the course of the book, she asks a hoodoo practitioner for a charm to make her less afraid to travel, she looks to a Wiccan festival to help her banish self-flagellating thoughts that creep up on her in the dark, and by the end, she is searching to experience real magic for herself.

The book's subtitle is "A Curious Tale of How Magic Is Transforming America," but the tale really amounts to how magic transformed Wicker. That's not necessarily an uninteresting project, but the book cannot decide whether it is a "serious journalistic look" or a personal journey; as a result, it ends up being neither. A book about magic should challenge your notions of what is possible, tickle your sense of wonder -- leave you, Horatio, confronted with the hard limits of your philosophy. And while Wicker's book certainly has these moments, they're too distilled to enchant us.

Don Bell, in The Man Who Killed Houdini, is on a much more concrete search. Bell, a Canadian journalist who died in 2003, was fascinated with the strange death of Harry Houdini. In his introduction, Bell writes that his purpose is to "inquire into the mystery of the magician's death," though one page earlier he describes his project rather more vividly as a "hunt for Harry Houdini's assassin."

Yes, assassin. In the last decade of his life, Houdini devoted considerable energy to exposing fraudulent spiritualists, and according to some, those spiritualists schemed to send Houdini beyond the veil. Was Houdini's death a "spiritualist contract killing?" If so, the assassin -- a college student named J. Gordon Whitehead -- certainly chose an unconventional method. Houdini died of peritonitis -- an infection of the lining of the abdomen, often caused by a ruptured appendix -- nine days after Whitehead punched him in the stomach.

Though he hedges his bets, Bell clearly wants to prove that this was an assassination, and he is willing to make any number of leaps of logic to do so. But the book is not an argument; it is the chronicle of Bell's investigation, all recorded in meticulous detail, as if he had reproduced his datebook. Most of the narrative is focused on dryly reporting the mundane details of his search for anyone who might have known Whitehead -- calls to directory assistance, phone conversations reproduced in their entirety over several pages, travel arrangements, meals and snacks, summaries of letters of inquiry, even a supposedly prophetic dream. While Bell litters his narration with portents of explosive revelations to come, he's unable to find any real evidence that Whitehead was trying to kill Houdini. So Bell turns to rather dubious sources to support his theory. He takes Whitehead's signature to a graphologist, who determines that the loops on his "J'" are "unpredictable, covert, maybe sinister, like he has a hidden agenda." He describes Whitehead and his fatal punch to a psychoanalyst, who suggests the young man may have been "also trying attacking [sic] the stomach of his mother. . . . Was he trying to kill his unborn self?" The most substantial evidence he can find -- evidence Bell seems to consider quite compelling -- is an assessment from a contemporary of Whitehead's that he was a bit of a jerk. Unfortunate, yes, but, alas, that's not a crime. *

Anne Ursu is the author of "The Disapparation of James."