According to history, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel's ""ORIGINAL AND CELEBRATED AUTOMATON CHESS PLAYER"" was an imported medicine-show hoax exposed in the 1830s by journalist Edgar Allan Poe. According to Thomas Gavin's vividly imagined psychological investigation, the chief victim of that hoax was William Schlumberger, the alcoholic hunchback chess genius who crammed himself nightly into the Automaton's hidden cavity--working levers, sweating and aching and fighting sleep, but thinking only of Louise Rouault. For lust-love of Louise, the wife of Maelzel's engineer assistant, Schlumberger leaves comfort and fame in Paris to slog across a muddy America as part of ""Maelzel's Mansion of Mechanical Marvels."" Shyster showman Maelzel and his staff form an uneasy but functional quartet of obsession, jealousy, blackmail, and musical beds until Louise--confused and exhausted by the demands on her heart and other organs--disappears. Schlumberger searches vainly, falls apart among the whores and cutthroats of old New York, and is reclaimed by Maelzel for Automaton tours into territories not yet privy to Poe's expose: Ohio, New Orleans, and Havana--where the trail ends in revealed secrets, a reported death (Schlumberger's, from yellow fever), and a real death (Maelzel's, via the avenging team of Rouault and Schlumberger). Gavin, a refreshingly omniscient narrator in this era of the clinical confessional, probes motives and moments with Jamesian grace and at Jamesian length, but his septic garden of images is a thicket to be charged through, not to get lost in. And the sense of History--phrenologists, silhouette-cutters, carriage wheels, steamboats--parallels a sense of personal history rising from the journals, letters, and scrapbooks of clippings over which Gavin's characters brood. Lacking only that immediacy of emotional impact which we've come to expect from contemporary fiction, this first novel is unmistakably written, but it's raw enough to be absolutely readable and rich enough to make you wonder why hardly anybody bothers to build this sort of book-of-many-layers any more.