Judging from "The Houdini Girl," Martyn Bedford would make a pretty terrific boyfriend. There's always some danger in ascribing a character's qualities to his or her creator; nevertheless, Bedford tips his hand with the observations he slips into the mind of his hero, Red, a professional magician who's fallen madly in love with -- and unexpectedly lost -- a tough cookie named Rosa Kelly. Rosa won't leave the house without full makeup, including vivid eye shadow (green, purple, turquoise, pink) and matching lipstick. Red accepts, and even loves, the somewhat garish fagade that Rosa presents to the world, recognizing that when she reveals her naked face to him in bed at night, it's an intensely intimate act -- one that men whose lovers don't bother with makeup will never know.
That's just one example of the subtlety and grace of "The Houdini Girl." The novel -- Bedford's second -- is essentially a noirish romance, stylish and fast-moving, but what sets it apart is its steadily beating heart. Red loses Rosa early, in a grisly and mysterious train accident, and spends the rest of the novel reflecting on their time together and searching for the key to what really happened, an inquiry that puts his own life in jeopardy.
There's all kinds of magic in "The Houdini Girl": Red's line of work is inseparable from who he is. He delights in describing trick after trick in luscious detail, but he reveals no secrets ("Don't ask, because I won't tell you"). Yet his mastery of illusion brings him up short when he tries to understand what he perceives as Rosa's deception. Without leaning too heavily on the "magic is illusion" metaphor -- a little of that goes a long way -- Bedford spins out a lush (and sometimes very funny) meditation on romantic confusion and treachery, infidelity and, ultimately, undying love.
It's the love that gets you -- especially the way Bedford shows it reflected in the mirror of Red's grief, as if gazing upon it directly would be too painful. "In the information pack I received from the undertakers was a booklet," he writes. "There was a long list under the heading 'The Do's and Don't's of Grieving.' Nowhere did it say: Don't have nightmares; don't let yourself be reduced to tears because you can't open a jar of marmalade or because the rubbish sack splits on the way to the dustbin; Don't clean her bike; Don't sit alone in a room all day with the curtains drawn; Don't wake up before dawn every morning; Don't talk to her; Don't fill two bowls with cereal before you realize she isn't there to eat hers; Don't hear her footsteps in every creak of the house; Don't sleep in her half of the bed; Don't answer the phone expecting to hear her voice; Don't ask why? Nowhere did it say I wasn't to ask why?" With that deceptively casual list, Bedford brings Red into sharper relief than many other writers could in pages of prose. It takes skill and sensitivity to pull that off. And it takes a good boyfriend to miss a woman that much.