"The Magician's Wife," by Brian Moore. Dutton. 230 pages. $23.95.
It was the merest of historical footnotes: In 1856, Napoleon III sent Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, Europe's most famous magician, to Algeria to help France subdue the Arab population there. But that fact was all the spark Brian Moore needed to ignite this exquisitely crafted novel, a fast-paced story of psychological, romantic and geo-political intrigue.
In "The Magician's Wife," the real Robert-Houdin (a name later exploited by Houdini) becomes the fictional Henri Lambert, a stage magician of immense renown. He has long since passed the rabbit-hat-magic-wand level. Using scientific tools such as magnetism and electricity, he has become the David Copperfield of the Second Empire.
Meanwhile, Napoleon III has a problem. Algeria is chaffing against its rulers, the infidel French. "Marabouts," Muslim holy men supposedly possessing magical powers, are stirring up the Arab tribes. France needs to keep a lid on things until it can throw its imperial army at the new colony.
The emperor and his agent, the Svengali-esque Colonel Deniau, head of France's Arab Bureau, think that Lambert may be the answer. Using Lambert's showmanship and European science, they hope to create a French marabout "capable of miracles no saint could match" and make the Arabs think twice about declaring holy war.
The story ranges from the royal palace at Compiegne, some 50 miles outside Paris, to the crowded streets and surrounding deserts of Algiers. It is told through the eyes of Emmeline Lambert, Henri's wife, a provincial beauty, years younger than her husband.
Emmeline is caught unwittingly in a world of cynical manipulation. Everywhere, strings are pulled. Treacherous France deceives the Arab tribes; egotistical Lambert hoodwinks his audiences; even Emmeline contemplates intrigue with the sensualist Colonel Deniau.
Brian Moore, an Irishman transplanted to Canada and the United States, is a master novelist whose 18 previous books constitute one of contemporary fiction's significant bodies of work. "The Magician's Wife" is far more than a whodunit in period costume.
"The Magician's Wife" is played out against the backdrop of cultural and religious imperialism. Moore's characters reach critical moments of disillusion as they confront European arrogance and the ultimate moral question: What's right?
Moore writes with propulsive clarity. The reader is immediately entangled. We may not be quite as naive as Emmeline, but like her, we can't divine the ending. Lambert performs his magic three times before the Arab leaders. Each time we hold our breath, waiting for fate to play its trump.
At first Emmeline is less a character than a foil. She is innocent, insecure, open and inherently fair - in every way the opposite of Lambert and Colonel Deniau. As the plot unfolds, however, her self-awareness and understanding grow. By the time Lambert and the chief marabout, Bou-Aziz, face off, she has peeked behind the curtains and seen the great Oz pulling those levers. She knows what's humbug and what isn't.
John Muncie is arts and entertainment editor of The Sun. From 1987-1995 he oversaw arts, books and theater coverage as assistant managing editor for features at the San Diego Union-Tribune.