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The Illusionist

I like short stories. It’s a mystery to me why some publishers have such a downer on them. It seems that they are not happy to countenance publishing a collection unless the author has already published at least one successful novel. I find that odd because there must surely be a market for them out there, including people like me who enjoy completing a story in a single reading, on a train or a plane, in a waiting room, or in a snatched hour of enchanted idleness in a busy day.

And a short story is a very different kind of thing from a novel. In a novel characters develop and change: they may be corrupted, seduced, debased, ruined; they may recant, reform, repent; they may be alienated and they may be reconciled. A novel may have a cast of thousands or be one man’s solitary epic or one woman’s odyssey. It may involve dynasties and their fortunes over decades with a globe for a stage. Or it may take us through the streets of a single town in a single day.

The short story doesn’t have this sort of span. Its effects are compressed and concentrated. Characterisation may be complex and finely drawn but it is often static, precisely fitted to the writer’s purpose without embellishment. We expect a twist in a short story. We expect to be led up the garden path; we expect to be pleasurably duped. In fact the short story writer’s art is akin to the conjuror’s. He uses misdirection: his patter distracts us from his sleight of hand and the tip of his wand takes our eyes away from his sleeve or his hat or the hidden pocket from which he produces with a flourish the Queen of Hearts, the string of coloured handkerchiefs, the bouquet of paper flowers, the doves and the rabbit.

I say all this because Michael Reidy’s collection of shorts, Undivulged Crimes, is  indeed a box of tricks. Reidy himself is the prestidigitator and the reader might well be the hunched figure on the atmospheric cover, walking along an endless recession of street lamps, into the mist. The fact that we are being entertained by an illusionist makes it very hard to review. After all, it would be terribly bad form to give the game away, wouldn’t it? Could get me thrown out of the Magic Circle. I will have to content myself with a few brief thumbnails.

The Magic Shop is a fitting portal to the collection. It is set in Barcelona ‘before the area was chic’. The title is apt because the shop not only sells cheap toys, magic tricks and party paraphernalia, but there is something magical about the building – and not in a nice way. It is owned by one of the enigmatic women who populate Reidy’s fiction. The narrator is in danger of falling in love but is warned off. There is witchery at work and a gothic world of torture and persecution threatens to obtrude through a rent in time. Seek to know no more. Read it yourself.

The Return of Colonel Thurston is a cleverly composed tale. The colonel is a confederate officer captured during the tail end of the American Civil War. During a convivial meal with his captor, Major Lowell, the major proposes a wager. If the colonel wins a game of chess, the major will grant him his freedom. Obviously, I can’t tell you the outcome but the hilarious final sentence will have you kicking yourself and wanting to thump the author.

Nick Carraway’s Journal is a revisionist take on the events of The Great Gatsby, told by Carraway’s son, who has unearthed his father’s diary. I don’t know if this story would make sense if you didn’t know Scott Fitzgerald’s original novel but, given its popularity and the fact that there are two film versions out there, there can’t be that many people who don’t. There are insights into the ‘real’ Daisy, Gatsby, Tom, Nick and Myrtle while Jordan turns out to have been fictitious, ‘a fabrication’ – a neat postmodern conceit. The revisions of our views on the characters are credible in their own terms whilst leaving the wonderful novel quite untainted – another neat conjuring trick.

Having done time as a teacher myself in a previous life, I can easily empathise with the narrator of The Gemini Experiment where a retired master exposes anomalies in the procedures of an examination board by way of some clever skullduggery with the results of sets of twins.

The question of wills, executors and the beneficiaries of unexpectedly large sums from obscure sources has often been fertile ground for writers. Think Bleak House and especially, Great Expectations. In The Benefactor, Lucinda Lord proves herself to be a smart cookie as she researches the details of her windfall wealth and makes a couple of unorthodox investments. There is some bitchy banter with her friends in this story which is nicely turned.

There is banter too in the exchanges between Holmes and Watson in the Remarkable Adventure of the Royal Society, or perhaps I should say ‘badinage’, or even ‘persiflage’. Reidy captures well the arch behaviour of the celebrated sleuth as well as Watson’s dogged loyalty. He also manages to emulate Conan Doyle’s style most convincingly. Holmes plans to help finance a scientific expedition to the South Pole organised jointly between The Royal Society and The Royal Geographical Society. The plan involves subscriptions to a celebrity chess match between Holmes and his brother, Mycroft. The outcome you must find out yourself. I will only say that the deployment of misdirection is perfect. You will want to kick yourself again and, this time, you may feel that the author should be horsewhipped.

The Pit is a grim little comedy which might have been penned by Evelyn Waugh. It concerns the tension between academic professionals and an enthusiastic amateur. Here as elsewhere Reidy invokes fictional authorities which ‘authenticate’ the tale.

Reidy’s ability to speak in different voices is evident in Winter Wind. We meet a group of Russian aristocrats at a post-opera party. The guests in the salon are glittering, elegant and sophisticated; they talk of their estates and their social circles, of military campaigns, art, theatre and St Petersburg. At last, the Duchess Anya Dimitrinovna points out that they have avoided talk of the opera A Feast in Time of Plague because it would foreground their internalised fear and awareness that their world is as fragile as a chandelier. We are left to infer what the ‘winter wind’ is that will come blowing down the street and shatter their society. I thought of the characters in The Cherry Orchard in denial about the inevitable.

Though all of the stories are comic, some darker than others, Angela’s Wedding is the most overtly farcical. You see, not only does Angela propose to marry her cat but there is outrage when it becomes clear that the cat is of the same gender. This is California after all. There are some great gags. I loved the group ‘Women Against Lesbian Bestiality’, Angela’s email ID PussyGalore_4752, and I hooted at ‘LGB-TV’. The tragicomedy of the ending is deftly done.

There is something of the claustrophobic worlds of Tennessee Williams in the final story, Undivulged Crimes, a kind of recapitulation and coda to the other tales. Ageing friends regather at Flanders, a pavilion in a fading resort on the gulf coast of Louisiana. The evocation of the atmosphere is lyrical, exotic even, ‘stirring up memory and desire’. But the narrator knows ‘the solution to a five decades old murder, and a fresh one too.’

In the end, we all have ‘undivulged crimes’ smuggled away, don’t we? Reidy’s mischief sets the skeletons rattling in the cupboard.