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Authors: Walter Satterthwait

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BOOK: Escapade
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Walter Satterthwait


In the summer of 1921. English society is fascinated by the spiritual world— perhaps no one more than the great mystery writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of thirteen eager guests at a weekend party and seance in a stately Devon manor house steeped in history and tradition. But. as Sir Arthur puts it. “Something very strange, and very sinister. is occurring here at Maplewhite. Whatever it is. warns his skeptical friend Harry Houdini. it is most certainly of this world, and no other.

Their suspicions arc amply continued when their host, the Earl of Axminster. is found murdered—in a locked nxim.

Suspects and secrets abound, from the lovely Lady Purleigh and her nubile daughter. Cecily. t«> Dr. Erik Auerbach, the Viennese psychoanalyst, to Mine. Sosostris. the renowned European medium. Nobody is quite what they appear to be. and everyone has something to hide, in a mystery so puzzling that it baffles not only Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but even the Great Houdini himself. Only the two greatest masterminds of artful deceit could solve a crime so ingeniously crafted and cunningly executed.

And only Walter Satterthwait could write Escapade, a brilliant comic novel that's also a traditional mystery, one that plays fair with the reader and yet still manages to break nearly all the rules.


Escapade. Copyright © 1995 by Walter Satterthwait. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Satterthwait, Walter.

ISBN 0-312-13068-6

1. Doyle, Arthur Conan, Sir, 1859-1930—Fiction.

2. Houdini, Harry, 1874—1926—Fiction. I. Tide. PS3569.A784E83 1995

813'.54—dc20    95-15462


First Edition: July 1995

10 98765432



Thanks to Dominick Abel, my agent; Reagan Arthur, my editor; and Jeanne W. Satterthwait, my mother. And thanks and hello to Derek and Alma Harding in Exeter; John and Jane Pack at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts; Lelli Rallis in Athens; Heidi Reich in St. Moritz; Mike Ripley at heathside; Susan Rose at the Snoop Sisters Bookstore in Bellaire Bluffs; Eva Schegulla in New York City; Yianni and Marsha Spiridoyiannakis at Delphini; Maggie Steed in “Harvey Moon”; John Tilke at the Centre for Police and Criminal Justice Studies, University of Exeter; and George and Gigi Wolff, nice folks, in Knightsbridge.

Thanks for earlier help to Ted and Barbara Flicker, of Santa Fe and points west.

And especial thanks to the extraordinary Sarah Caudwell, of London and points north, who slogged through this book in manuscript and who stole huge chunks of time from the writing of her own eagerly awaited opus to offer invaluable suggestions and advice. Hi, Sarah.








The magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.

—Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin

Sex is worth dying for.

—Michel Foucault




The Morning Post

12 Yeoman’s Row, Knightsbridge

August 15,1921

Dear Evangeline,

No catty complaints from me today. Today I have some good news, really quite splendid news, in fact. Tomorrow morning, the Allardyce and her paid spinster companion are romping off to Devon for a seance.

Yes, you poor envious wretch, a seance. In Devon. In a haunted manor house, no less. Clanking chains and spectral voices and dripping ectoplasm and one of those overweight mediums with cryptic messages from dear departed Aunt Delilah. And a train ride through the West Country! The wild moor, the open countryside: an escape from the grime of grim grey London! I’m really quite witless with excitement!

The Allardyce has spent the last two days crowing about her aristocratic connections. She’s a cousin—no doubt distant (meow)—of Alice, Viscountess Purleigh, whose husband, Robert, the Viscount, is the son of the Earl of Axminster. The seance will be held at Maplewhite, the Earl’s estate. So, Evy, as of tomorrow, I’ll be mingling with the peerage. But you needn’t worry—I’ll never forget the simple honest folk, like yourself, who were so terribly kind to me before I rose to greatness.

I’m packing the luggage (hers and mine), so I haven’t time, just now, to scrawl more than a few lines. But I did want to tell you that I’ve begun to read the book you sent to me, Mrs Stopes’s ‘Married Love’. It’s curious and rather delicious to see all those body parts swaggering so boldly across the printed page, cool Latin names draped like togas over their smooth warm shoulders. I’ll be ferrying the book to Devon, but discreetly of course.

Should the Allardyce ever suspect what it is I’m reading with such zeal she would become quite puce with shock. I’ve very cleverly stripped away its original cover and replaced it with the cover to ‘Mansfield Park’. I suspect that this would delight Miss Austen

nearly as much as it would dismay Mrs Stopes.

How is that charming brother of yours? How is Mary?

I must go. I shall write to you when I arrive at the haunted mansion and I shall let you know everything.

All my love,


Chapter One

THE GREAT Man was skating the big Lancia around blind turns on the slick road as though he had received a personal telegram from God that guaranteed his immortality.

“You’re driving too fast, Harry,” I said. I had said it before and it hadn’t accomplished anything. I didn’t really expect it to accomplish anything now. But occasionally you want to put these things on the record.

The Great Man smiled at me. He had a wide, wild, charming smile. It made you believe that he felt extremely lucky to be in your company, and usually it made you believe that you were extremely lucky to have your company to offer. It hadn’t been working so well since he got behind the wheel.

“Phil, Phil,” he said. “You worry too much altogether. I have spent countless years honing my reflexes. As you know. With a lesser man, yes, for certain, you would be in jeopardy. But with me, you are as safe as a little tiny baby in its cradle.”

That was the way he talked.

“Don’t look at me,” I said. “Look at the road.”

“Peripheral vision,” he said, and he smiled again without taking his eyes off me as he coasted around another turn. His teeth were white. His eyes were grayish blue and shiny and the smile deepened the lines that angled from their corners. “That, too,” he said. “With practice, with work, it can be brought to a level of achievement most men would never believe possible.”

“Harry,” I said. “Look. At. The. Road.”

He laughed. But he turned to face the road, showing me his profile. Curly black hair, a bit unruly and a bit gray at the temples. A strong nose, a wide mouth, a strong chin. Not a handsome face, in fact almost an ugly face. But a dynamic face, as forceful as the blade of an axe.

I squinted through the smeared windshield. The wipers squeaked back and forth, slapping water around the glass without ever getting rid of it.

We had left Dartmoor behind us, the cold gray mist and the endless rollers of bald gray hill. It had been grim and empty, but at least you could see the cars that were coming your way. It had been better than this.

This was gray rain ahead and tall black hedgerows looming up on either side, and endless possibilities of collision. Sometimes there were trees just behind the hedgerows, left and right, and their black branches and black leaves arched over the road and formed a long dark tunnel. The headlights were on but they weren’t working any better than the wipers.

I sat back and sighed.

Usually I was the driver. It was part of the job I had been hired to do. Usually, the Great Man and his wife sat in the back seat. But the Great Man’s wife had been too ill to leave Paris and we had gone to Amsterdam and then to London without her. The Great Man hadn’t cared for that.

He had sulked until Lord Endover offered him the Lancia— “Keep her as long as you like, old boy.” The Great Man had glanced out the window of Lord Endover’s Belgravia town house at the Lancia parked at the curb, its long white body as sleek and as promising and as dangerous as a banker’s second wife. A gleam had come into his eye and at that moment I knew I would probably never get behind the wheel of the beast.

The rain sizzled along the hood of the car, splattered along the glass. The wipers chirped.

In England, you’re supposed to drive on the left. But on this road there wasn’t much difference between left and right. If I stuck my arm out the passenger window, I could have touched the hedgerows. Except they weren’t really hedgerows. Hedgerows were plants and they gave way when you hit them. These were stone walls thinly screened with ferns and bushes and they would have snapped my arm in two.

Once again now, he went racing through a left-hand turn. But this time the Lancia’s rear wheels slid away beneath us and the car

lurched toward that towering wall on the right. I stopped breathing and I braced myself.

As though being braced would make a difference when a ton of speeding metal met a hundred tons of rooted rock.

The Great Man eased up on the gas pedal, steered ever so slightly into the skid as the Lancia swept within inches of the wall. Black branches snatched at the bodywork, scrabbled at my window. Then, in the last possible fraction of a second, just when I knew it was all over, the tires bit into the road again. The Great Man downshifted, punched the pedal, and the car surged forward into the gray rain. He turned to me and laughed. “Reflexes,” he announced gaily.

He was a wonderful driver. He was better than I was, and I was good. But enough was enough.

I exhaled. Then I inhaled. Then I said, “Okay, Harry. Stop the car.”

He turned to me and he frowned. “What?”

“The car. Stop it. Now.”

The frown reached his eyes. “You want me to stop?”


“But . . .”


He stopped the car and looked over at me, still frowning. I grabbed my fedora from the back seat. I opened the door, stepped out into the rain, and slammed the door shut behind me. I screwed on the hat. I tugged up my coat collar, buttoned the buttons, tied the belt, and I started marching back the way we’d come.

The rain wasn’t all that heavy when you weren’t racing through it at sixty miles an hour. But it was as wet as rain usually is, and it was cold. The air temperature was probably in the forties. This was August. Oh to be in England now that summer’s here.

I heard the car come up behind me.


The car was in reverse. He had the window down and he was leaning across the seat so he could talk to me through it. Rain was pattering onto the leather seats, but I doubt that he noticed, or cared. If the seats were damaged, he would buy Lord Endover a new Lancia. He could afford it.

I saw all this without looking at him directly. Peripheral vision. I kept walking and he kept driving. The car remained at exactly the same distance from me all the while, about two feet away. He was a wonderful driver, even in reverse.

“Phil? Where are you going?”

I didn’t look at him. “Back to New York.”

“But what about your job?”

“I can’t do my job if we’re both dead.”

“But what about Bess? What will I tell her?”

Bess was his wife. It had been her idea to hire me.

I said, “Tell her whatever you want.”

“Phil,” he said. “You’re upset.”

He said it as though he had just now figured it out. Probably he had. He was one of those men who honestly believed that everyone was as thrilled by him as he was.

“Yeah,” I admitted. I still hadn’t looked at him.

“Why don’t
drive the car, Phil?”

I stopped walking and he stopped driving. I turned and looked down at him. Some water toppled from my hat and splattered onto my shoes. He was peering up at me through the window, blinking against the rain. His face was earnest.

He hadn’t apologized. Why should he? He hadn’t done anything wrong. He couldn’t do anything wrong. Ever. But I was upset, for whatever reason, and he liked me, and so he would mollify me. He was a generous man.

Despite myself, I smiled. His self-involvement was so total it was almost a kind of innocence.

“Harry,” I said, “you are really a piece of work.”

He smiled up at me, that wide charming smile, and he nodded. He already knew that.

WE REACHED the narrow gravel driveway to Maplewhite at a little after nine-thirty that night.

The rain had stopped, darkness had come. The full moon was a dull gray blur behind dark scudding clouds edged with silver. Leaning toward us on both sides was a dense forest of tall black trees, oaks and elms and pines. We drove up through these into the smell of damp earth and moldering leaves, the drive turning back and forth upon itself like a grifter’s alibi. At the top of the hill the trees fell away and all at once we were among the clouds and not below them. In the moonlight they were slowly rolling across acres and acres of parkland.

BOOK: Escapade
3.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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