A USA Today Bestseller!
"[A] well-paced, evocative, and adventurous historical novel..."―Publishers Weekly, STARRED Review
"This is a book in which storylines twist, spiral and come together again in an ending as explosive as a poof of smoke from your chimney...or a top hat." ― Oprah.com
Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus in The Magician's Lie, a debut novel in which the country's most notorious female illusionist stands accused of her husband's murder - and she has only one night to convince a small-town policeman of her innocence.
The Amazing Arden is the most famous female illusionist of her day, renowned for her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage. One night in Waterloo, Iowa, with young policeman Virgil Holt watching from the audience, she swaps her trademark saw for a fire ax. Is it a new version of the illusion, or an all-too-real murder? When Arden's husband is found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, the answer seems clear.
But when Virgil happens upon the fleeing magician and takes her into custody, she has a very different story to tell. Even handcuffed and alone, Arden is far from powerless-and what she reveals is as unbelievable as it is spellbinding. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free... and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors.
"Smart, intricately plotted...a richly imagined thriller." ―PEOPLE magazine
"This debut novel is historical fiction that blends magic, mystery, and romance."―Boston Globe, Pick of the Week
"It's a captivating yarn.... 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."―Washington Post
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Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist whose work has appeared in publications such as The North American Review, The Missouri Review, and The Messenger. Her plays have been performed at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. She lives with her family in Brooklyn.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
July 23, 1905
Six o'clock in the evening
Tonight, I will do the impossible.
The impossible is nothing new to me. As I do every night, I will make people believe things that aren't true. I will show them worlds that never existed, events that never happened. I will weave a web of beautiful illusion to snare them, a glittering trap that drags them willingly with me into the magical, false, spellbinding world.
Before that, I will gather my strength. I will remain motionless, barely even breathing, here in this chair, while preparations happen around me, to me. I feel the feathery touch of brushes on my cheeks, on my chin, as my face is made up for the stage. I feel a heavy thumb press down on my eyelid. Another hand lightly, lightly edges it with kohl. Fingers twist and pin my hair into place, snap a heavy gilded bracelet onto my wrist. It's not possible to ignore the hands, but I focus on not reacting to them, on not reacting to anything.
I go through the act inside my head, rehearsing my patter and my gestures, seeing the whole night unfold. I welcome the crowd and take charge of the theater. I produce hats from nothingness. I transport coins through the air with a snap of my fingers, turning gold into nothing into gold again. The details of each scene bloom and dive and swarm through my head as I picture the evening from first curtain to final bow, here in the chair, silent and still. Without giving any outward sign, I dance on the inside, hearing every trilling and tender note of the music, practicing every elegant step.
When it's time, I rise on command and step into the dress held out for me, bowing my head. The dress is always last. This is how we proceed every night, and at least in this way, tonight is the same as every other. The hands close up the back of the dress, waist to neck, and then turn me around to pass three tiny buttons through three tiny loops, covering my throat, and my costume is complete.
Onstage I will act as I always act. I will do many impossible things. I will make mysteries of scarves and coins, enchant the audience sweetly, misdirect their attention to take them by surprise. I will entertain and flatter. Then I will close the show, as I always do, with the Halved Man. I will cut a man in two, severing him through his trunk, and he will scream for mercy as the blood pours forth. The audience will be unable to believe what they see, but neither will they be able to reject it. It will look entirely real.
Then I will heal him. He will spring up whole again, wiping away the blood from an expanse of flawless skin, as if there had never been a wound. My healing powers are legendary, though no one really knows their true extent. They don't know how I wish away my own injuries, the cuts and bruises, the burns, the broken bones. It isn't part of my legend, but it's part of my life.
I'm escorted to the stage, as I always am, another set of footfalls moving exactly in concert with mine.
This is the routine now, every night.
This is the life of the most famed female illusionist in the world, very nearly the only one in existence, the life I have made for myself through luck and talent and sheer will. This is the life I have decided to leave behind. This is the life I will end.
Tonight, I will escape my torturer, once and for all time.
Tonight, I will kill him.
Seven o'clock in the evening
The magician raises the ax high over her head, lets it hang there a moment, then brings it down in one broad stroke.
The sound of splintering wood rings through the theater. At the same time, there's a scream. It sounds like an animal, but Holt knows it's a man. It's the man in the box, a box the woman onstage just drove an ax straight into. Blood gushes out over the sides of the box, pooling wetly on the floor. He almost vomits.
The blood's got to be fake. This is an act, he reminds himself, all an act.
His friend Mose whispers, "Like I told you, right? Never seen anything like it!"
"Never," agrees Officer Holt.
As latecomers, they're standing all the way at the back, behind the seated crowd, and he looks over the heads of several hundred silent Iowans, holding their collective breath. Even from here, he has a clear view of the stage. Earlier in the magician's act, there were elaborate sets, like a life-size replica of ancient Rome, with a dozen dancing slave girls and lute players galore. Now there is only the magician, and her ax, and a man's head and feet protruding from the ends of a long box like a coffin on tall wheels, now half-split through the middle and seemingly soaked with blood.
She raises the ax and swings it down again, workmanlike, as if it were only wood she's splitting. The man bellows once, twice more, and then falls silent.
The audience waits.
When the magician tosses away the ax, it clatters to the floor with a sharp report, but she doesn't seem to hear it. She lays her bare hands on the splintered wood and slowly, slowly pushes the two halves of the broken, bloody box apart. She shoves half of the box offstage to the right, returns to the center, and shoves the other half offstage to the left.
Holt finds himself leaning forward, rapt.
At the edges of the stage, ribbons of black smoke rise in slow currents. The smoke swirls and grows, spreading in inky clouds toward stage center, until the magician-standing with her long, pale arms thrust into the air, waiting-is swallowed whole.
There is a noise like a thunderclap, and the black smoke turns white.
Another noise, and the smoke is gone altogether, along with the magician.
Then there are murmurs from the front of the theater. A disturbance in the audience, shifting motions, turning heads. Something's happening in the front row. Holt can't see what it is, trapped in the back with his roiling gut. He wants to surge forward. He burns to know how this all ends.
All at once, everywhere around him, applause breaks out, so loud it hurts his head. People gasp, whisper, cheer. The magician is on the stage again-how, when did she get there?-with her arms outstretched once more. The sight of her takes what's left of his breath away. Her face floats like a moon above the high neckline of her sparkling black dress. One porcelain cheek is splashed with blood.
Then he sees what has amazed the audience. She welcomes to the stage the man from the box, whole again. The man grins and waves. Once broken, now healed, as if the horror and the blood of minutes before had never been.
It's too much for Holt, and he turns tail, pushes open the back doors, stands panting in the lobby. He hears Mose follow him, not too close behind. He stares at the nearest unmoving thing to try to steady his head. It's a poster for the magician, the Amazing Arden. She stares out proudly with one blue eye and one that's half blue, half brown. Her body hovers above a halved coffin. Strange stuff. There are other words too blurred for him to read. The fault is probably not in the words.
Mose says, "Steady there, Virgil," and claps him on the back.
"Not sure why you thought this would help," Holt tells him dryly.
"Take your mind off your troubles."
"Kind of you to try."
"If magic won't distract you, I know what will," Mose says and leads him down the street to a tavern, half-empty, friendly, dark.
They drink and talk of innocuous things: whether the lack of rain is stunting this year's corn, how little Janesville has changed in twenty years, how the taste of lousy gin seems to get better the more of it you drink. They don't talk about Mose's promotion, or their rivalry, or Iris, or Holt's bad news. Holt asks politely about Prudie and the baby but is relieved when Mose only says that they're well. Talking about their wives could open doors Holt doesn't want opened tonight.
They are still there three hours later when the door of the tavern bangs open and someone calls, "Sheriff Huber!" While Mose leaps up to answer, Holt remains on his stool. He sits by himself and drinks yet more gin he should leave alone. Unlikely he'll ever be sheriff. His hand creeps toward the small of his back from habit. He forces it back down.
When Mose calls to him, it takes a few long moments for him to hear and stir himself from his reverie.
"Holt! Up and out," says Mose.
"It's a police matter." He points at Holt. "And you're police."
"Twenty miles down the road. Not here."
"Doesn't matter. You won't be there in an official capacity. But you're going to want to see this."
Holt rises as best he can and follows.
A few hours' time has transformed the theater and not for the better. The house lights have been turned all the way up, making visible the wear on the empty seat cushions, the stained and faded carpet. The voices of a small crowd near the stage carry all the way back as the two of them head up the center aisle.
Holt catches the metallic tang of blood on the air right away. The bile rises in his throat again, and he fights to keep it down. Pouring cheap gin on top of today's news and tonight's gore has hollowed him out like a rotten stump.
He keeps moving, forcing himself forward, even when he hears Mose frame the question, "All right, who found the body?"
"Stagehand," says one of the men in uniform. There are several, standing in a tight circle in front of the stage, heads down, staring through an open trap door. Holt joins the circle and follows their gazes down. Underneath the stage, there are another half dozen officers, clustered around the remains of the Halved Man trick. Where there are more officers, there are more lamps, and the space under the stage is almost as bright as day. He can see clearly despite the distance and the drink.
The long, coffin-like box is split in half, nearly pulped in the center by the magician's ax. The stains near the center are cherry-red, clearly fake stage blood, but the spreading pool of liquid around the base of the box is a darker red, somewhere between wine and rust. One half of the box is empty. A man's dead body has been jammed into the other half. As he watches, two of the officers free the body from the box. When he sees what sorry shape the dead man is in, he stops watching.
Mose calls gruffly to one of the officers onstage. "And they're sure who it is?"
"Confirmation from these two," says the officer, indicating a pair of trembling girls off to the side. They clutch each other's sleeves and wipe their eyes over and over again. "Tell them what you told me." But the girls are unable to string a sentence together, and at last the officer says, "It's her husband."
"Whose husband?" asks Holt, thinking he means one of the girls.
Mose says, "So where's the magician?"
"Obviously, we'd like to talk to her."
Her trick, her husband, almost certainly her doing. Of course she's wanted for questioning. Holt pictures that ax falling again, the matter-of-fact way she brought it down, without hesitation. The image is so clear in his head that he thinks he feels the blade.
He should go home. He didn't sleep last night, just lay in his bed in a panic, and it's starting to catch up with him.
He taps his friend on the shoulder and says, "Listen, I'm going to get on the road."
"Just let me-"
"No, you need to stay. Good luck, Sheriff Huber. I think you may need it."
"Why don't you stay the night?" Mose asks. "We've plenty of room."
"No, thank you. Really need to get home. Iris'll worry," he says, all of which is true.
Outside in the warm night, the summer air does little to clear his head. He swings his leg over his horse and lowers himself into the saddle inch by inch, angry that he has to be careful about it. The alcohol has dulled the pain enough that he can almost forget it, but not quite. It still gnaws. He's sore from the doctor's poking and prodding, as if the wound itself weren't bad enough. At least he can put this place and this day behind him now. He turns the horse's head toward Janesville.
Fifteen miles down the road, still five miles from home, he slows at the crossroads. The night is silent and warm. For a moment, he pictures himself turning right. Continuing east toward Chicago and Ohio and New York City and the Atlantic Ocean, none of which he's ever seen. Throwing caution to the wind and spurring the horse as fast as he can go, galloping across the open flat land till they're both gasping. Hunger is what makes up his mind in the moment. The lighted window of a restaurant just before the bend, perched here for travelers at all hours, draws him. The road will be there afterward either way.
He ties his horse out front, goes inside, takes a seat. Late as it is, just past midnight, the only other customer is a gentleman in the corner with his head down on the table like he's asleep. Reading the menu, Holt wipes his face with a handkerchief and feels the alcohol sweating out of his pores. He asks for coffee, but this time of night, they don't have a pot ready, and the waitress disappears to put one on fresh. Every single thing on the bill of fare sounds delicious. Fried ham and creamed hominy, roly-poly pudding, and blueberry pie. He could hardly go wrong, whatever he chooses. As Iris says, hunger is the best sauce. He loses himself for a moment, thinking of her. She doesn't yet know the news he heard today. He isn't sure what to tell her. Or what to tell anyone. No doubt they'll force him to resign, give up his position as the town's only police officer. Who will he be then? Would Iris still love a nobody, if that's who he becomes?
The bell atop the door frame jingles. He glances up from the menu for just a moment, and when he does, the whole world shifts.
In the doorway is a young woman in a long cloak, gripping a valise. Since he last saw her, she has wiped the fake blood from her cheek.
He wastes no time, standing from his chair and meeting her in the doorway, before she can step farther inside. He reaches for her elbow and says, "Ma'am?"
She seems much smaller now than she did onstage. She stares up at him with those odd, mismatched eyes. One blue eye, like a regular eye, the left one. The right one, half brown, half blue. Divided right down the middle, straight as a plumb line. Even if her sparkling black gown weren't peeking out from under her cloak, which it is, the eyes would have given her away.
He says in a clear, firm voice, "I'm Officer Virgil Holt of the Janesville Police Department. I'm placing you under arrest, ma'am. On suspicion of murder."
"Murder!" she exclaims, blinking, her hand flying to cover her lips. "Sir?"
"Don't be alarmed, ma'am. Just come with me and we'll discuss it," he says, reaching for her elbow, which he almost manages to hold for a moment before she bolts.
They struggle in the doorway, and the bell jingles madly as he maneuvers her outside. As they jostle and his shoulder slams into the door frame, the thought strikes him-he shouldn't be doing this, it's dangerous-and he relaxes his grip just a little....
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