THE WAR MAGICIAN by David Fisher


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The camouflage exploits of British music-hall magician Jasper Maskelyne and his six-man experimental unit, the Magic Gang, in 1941-42 North Africa--rigged up, alas, as quest for self-realization. Maskelyne died in 1973, so there's no guessing how prolific co-author/ghost Fisher (The Most Wanted Man in America, The Umpire Strikes Back) came by knowledge of his thoughts--""his desperate efforts [as the scion of magicians] to step out of the family shadows,"" his constant search for ""something bigger and better than anything ever performed on the stage of war""--or on what basis he reconstructs conversations between Maskelyne and his close collaborator Frank Knox, whose accidental death is one of the book's dramatic peaks. The clumsy emoting also makes it seem as if the North African war exists to satisfy Maskelyne's needs, not the other way around--especially since Fisher's rough account of its course, and his cursory reference to the camouflage work of others, gives each Maskelyne feat the look of a nail in Hitler's coffin. But the feats were deucedly clever, and the details of their contrivance are intriguing. There was, first off, the way camouflage trainees Maskelyne and Knox caught the attention of Lord Gott by making the Nazi battleship Graf Spee appear to be sailing down the Thames; the way the Magic Gang whipped up 50,000 gallons of sand-colored camouflage paint, for Wavell's tanks, out of Worcestershire sauce, spoiled flour, cement, and (to give it the proper color) camel dung; the way they made tanks materialize for Wavell ""out of thin air""--or, out from under undistinguishable ten-ton trucks; the way they made Alexandria harbor disappear, hid the Suez Canal, conjured up a fleet of subs, produced a 720 ft. battleship. . . which didn't quite pass muster, suggesting to Maskelyne the double-bluff (""fake"" camouflage) he'd use in deceiving the Germans as to Montgomery's intentions at Alamein. Meanwhile, on the internal-warfare front: Knox's fiery death following a forced landing prompts Maskelyne to devise a fire-resistant cream (whose test brings on another horrible burning, for which he also blames himself); and Maskelyne and one of the Gang get lost and almost perish in the desert. He is sustained throughout by thoughts of wife Kathy--whence finally cometh peace. Maskelyne's later, broader WW II efforts are alluded to in the epilogue, as is his death in Kenya in near-obscurity: there's both more and less to the story than Fisher tells here. But readers with a tolerance for fictionalized bosh can settle in and enjoy the bona fide deceptions.

Pub Date: Feb. 17th, 1982
Publisher: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan