At the pinnacle of her career, an early 20th-century magician known as the Amazing Arden astonishes the world by sawing a man in half onstage — or at least appearing to do so. “Who is this Amazing Arden?” the headlines ask.

Greer Macallister’s atmospheric novel tells the story of this fictional magician, whose talents make her one of the world’s most famous female masters of illusion. It’s a tale as spellbinding as any of Arden’s performances, with plenty of smoke and mirrors to confound and misdirect the reader.

“The Magician’s Lie” opens in 1905. Arden is preparing to dazzle an audience in Waterloo, Iowa, with her “Halved Man” trick. She will saw a man in half, blood will spurt from the wooden box in which he lies, and she will put him back together again. But this time she switches out the saw for an ax. “Tonight, I will escape my torturer, once and for all time. Tonight, I will kill him,” she confesses to the reader. (Her tormentor isn’t named, but who he is and what he has done to her are horrifying when finally revealed.)

Later that night, a man’s body, an ax buried in his chest, is found under the stage. The police’s prime suspect in the death is, not surprisingly, the Amazing Arden. The victim is said to be her husband. Arden flees Waterloo but is soon captured by a police officer.

Arden begs the officer to listen to her life story and to everything that led to that deadly night. But how much of her story should the officer — and the reader — believe? Did her sadistic cousin torture her, as she claims? Or is she lying about everything, waiting for the right moment to escape?

"The Magician's Lie" by Greer Macallister. (Sourcebooks)

Arden spends the night laying out her story for the officer — from her childhood on a Tennessee farm to her life in New York, where she danced on Broadway and eventually joined a vaudeville magic troupe. It’s a captivating yarn, but unfortunately Arden’s telling of it lacks the desperate ferocity and pace you’d expect from a woman trying to clear her name.

But patience is rewarded. In the final 100 pages, Arden’s story races toward that Agatha Christie denouement readers have been anticipating from the start. Macallister, like the Amazing Arden, mesmerizes her audience. No sleight of hand is necessary. An ambitious heroine and a captivating tale are all the magic she needs.

Memmott’s reviews have also appeared in USA Today and the Chicago Tribune.


By Greer Macallister

Sourcebooks Landmark. 312 pp. $23.99