The Magician's Lie often bears the aura a fairy tale, with a damsel in distress, a handsome prince, an ogre and a cause--a cautionary tale that rings true no matter when it takes place. Somewhat blurred by the haze of history, it begins, in fact, with a brutal murder in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1905, though the real story started much earlier, in 1892. Although the young woman suspected of committing the heinous murder is being held in a small police station by Officer Virgil Holt, who intends to turn her over to the sheriff in the morning, the magician billed as “the Amazing Arden” is permitted to relate her version of the night’s events. Shedding the façade of her stage presence, Arden
(whose real name is Ada Bates) tells her story, hoping to gain the young man’s trust, perhaps even to escape before the dawn brings the sheriff. There are only these few hours in the dark of night, her cuffed hands attached to a sturdy chair, in which to appeal to her jailer, to make him a sympathetic listener who might take pity on her after the experiences that have brought her to this sorry state.
Regardless of the era in which it takes place, this is a familiar story: a woman’s inability to exercise the choices so freely enjoyed by men, the freedom to choose one’s own commitments, to embrace “agency” (self-determination), to do what one wants without being forced to bend to the will of another. An extraordinary young girl with an abundance of natural talents, Ada Bates invests perhaps the final hours of her freedom in spinning the tale that is her life, a woman once more at the mercy of a man’s authority, this one wearing a badge.
The chapters alternate between Ada’s beginnings--a pampered life of privilege--then penury and the tense hours when a suspicious Virgil Holt resists falling under the spell of a beautiful woman, one with magical powers.
He hopes to ascertain the veracity of her words, adamant that she will not make a fool of him. Holt has his own pressing problems, particularly a recent injury that may affect his ability to walk in the future. Turning Ada over to the sheriff could be a coup in an inauspicious career. Fearing himself woefully ill-equipped to outwit the beautiful and clever magician, Virgil is often unnecessarily gruff, frequently checking her restraints and fighting the weariness that has begun to overcome him. Reading the character of her conflicted captor while she speaks, Ada gives herself over to the tale, taking time occasionally to ask about Virgil’s private life, his wife, and what his future holds, a Scheherazade hoping to barter her freedom.
Throughout Ada/Arden’s tale, from a young woman trapped by impossible circumstances to a career on the stage that brings her notoriety, financial success and even love, her struggle is shadowed by fear, motivated by the courage to keep going regardless of the threat that follows her every move. Aside from a father too cowardly to claim her, the two most important men in her life represent the extremes she has found in the world.
Her natural talents are fostered by the acerbic magician Adelaide Herrmann, who teaches her promising student the danger of self-pity, that “too much truth is dangerous for all of us.” How Arden employs this truth has much to do with the obstacles she faces, the final lie alluded to in the title perhaps the most devastating of all in a life filled with deceit. With a little magic and a lot of courage, Arden refuses to be bound to the chains of fear, writing her own ending to a story that is hers alone.