Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The War Magician

Not too long ago I came across an interview with Michael Chabon's (one of my favorite writers) wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman, in which she mentioned that the two of them are working on a show for HBO called Hobgoblin which will be about a group of magicians and con men in World War II. That in itself sounded cool to me. Chabon has written comics and has done the screenplays for some superhero movies so I expect that this show will be entertaining.

However, the most intriguing item in the interview came when Waldman was asked if the show would be based on Jasper Maskelyne. "Who on earth is Jasper Maskelyne?", I wondered. Waldman denied it would be based on any particular person but I still wanted to find out more about this Maskelyne fellow.

He was a British magician, one of a long line of magicians in his family, who, when World War II came about, felt that he could apply his skills in deception and misdirection to military problems. It took some time to convince the military brass that this was true but once he did, it appears he made quite an impact, at least on the war effort against Rommel in Northern Africa.

Along the way in my research I discovered that a book had been written on Maskelyne, the one I'm reviewing here. I requested it via Interlibrary Loan. It was pretty fascinating, highly entertaining, but, despite the dustjacket claim that it was "exhaustively researched", I really had my doubts on that regard.

One of the main reasons I had my doubts was because of the sheer number of conversations between people that were re-created in the book. If you're going to have an abundance of quotes, let me know where they're from; reconstituted journal entries, interviews, creative non-fiction. There's nothing, though. Not a footnote to be found in this exhaustively researched book.

I'm not the only one with concerns about the accuracy of the book. There is a website about Maskelyne which breaks down War Magician and Maskelyne's ghosted biography.

Even the author's webpage at MacMillan publishing (and some of you might recognize Fisher's name from his sport books, particularly his co-writing Ron Luciano's books) now calls War Magician a novel. So, questioning the level of factual information in this book seems valid. And it makes sense. I think if Maskelyne really pulled off as much as the book claims, he'd be much more recognized than he is.

War Magician is entertaining. Maskelyne leads a group of ragtag soldiers who are in charge of coming up with ideas to deceive the Germans. The most successful of these efforts are the creation of wooden shells designed to make tanks look like trucks. A lot of ingenuity is shown. When a bunch of green tanks are shipped to Africa for desert warfare and no paint can be found to camoflauge them, Maskelyne and his gang make their own paint out of spoiled Worcestershire sauce and camel dung.

Ultimately, the book is too long and too filled with meaningless discussions and efforts to flesh out the players in the story for me to recommend it. That, plus it not being what it initially purported itself to be, a well-researched biography of Maskelyne. But if you have an interest in World War II and want to learn something unusual, at least check out the Maskelyne website I linked to. Learning about Maskelyne makes me even more interested in Chabon's Hobgoblins.

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