Fiction Reviews

The Warlock Effect

(2023) Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman, Hodder & Stoughton, £20, hrdbk, 350pp, ISBN 978-1-399-72171-4


This is a post-war spy thriller rather than science fiction, unless you were to regard, sayThe Ipcress File, as science fiction. I found it most enjoyable and at times hard to put down.

As a boy, Ludvik Weinschenk had fled Nazi Germany to England, the only member of his family to escape. His time in an English boarding school was not pleasant but he had a method for easing the distrust expressed in him by his fellow boarders - he could do card tricks. By 1953, under his stage name of Louis Warlock, the young man was an established magician who drew large audiences in London and even had his own radio show. (Yes, magic on the radio!)

As we all know, stage magic (this is not a Sword and Sorcery novel) is a matter of sleight of hand, misdirection, suggestion, special devices, and an understanding of how people perceive and can be deceived, not that this takes the fun out of a good show. When Mr. Aldous, the editor of the Illustrated magazine, publicly accuses him of being a fraud in his claims to be able to read the mind of his assistant (and fiancée) Dinah, Louis accepts the challenge to prove his abilities. Magazine staff will drive Dinah from her flat to an unnamed location somewhere within a three miles radius then, without any possibility of communication between them, and starting from the magazine’s own office, Louis will find her using only his mind-reading abilities. Furthermore, he will be blindfolded and travelling in Aldous’ car, with Aldous sitting right beside him. Needless to say, he succeeds.

The story often uses flashbacks to explain what has happened, or how it happened, and this is done well. We learn that Louis has a group of very bright people helping him; known to themselves as the Brains Trust, nobody outside it knows the group exists. Between them, and their many friends and collaborators from various walks of life, they achieve much without anyone else being the wiser. Can Louis really read Dinah’s mind? Of course not. It is a trick. The friends, unknown to Aldous, have discretely followed Dinah and the magazine staff to the unnamed location and passed the information to Louis - the trick is in how they do that without anyone realising. This sort of thing is the basis of many of Louis’ tricks - a secret, talented team behind him, detailed planning, and, just in case, fallback plans.

Fresh from his very public success, Louis is surprised to be ‘invited’ (with implied menaces) to the secret office of Thorneycroft, a very senior officer in an unspecified unit within the Ministry of Defence. It seems that his country has need of Louis’ special talents! And so he (and, unknown to anyone else, his secret team) embark on a delicate mission to ‘recover’ sensitive information from a visiting Russian spy who is posing as a fellow magician.

But all is not as it seems. This is a story of cross, double-cross, triple-cross, quadruple-cross, and more. As his mission proceeds, Louis discovers the hard way that nobody, but nobody, is to be believed or trusted. If he thought that as a stage magician he knew how to misdirect and deceive, he finds he is up against an enemy who has more than mastered the art and, unlike him, knows what is really going on. And this, of course, is where the story, the thrill ride, is.

The normal chapters are interspersed with occasional chapters written with a typewriter (well, in a typewriter font): his memoirs and descriptions of how to perform some of the easier magic tricks. This is a curiosity most of the time but at the end of the story the reason is revealed. Louis Warlock may be appear to be outclassed and totally out of his depth in the world of Soviet spying, brainwashing, and worse horrors, but he is still a master magician and has a special trick or two up his sleeve (so to speak).

I found the story refreshingly different, an unusual take on cold war espionage. I liked the characters, the way the story was put together, and the style of writing. Many of the characters, characterisations, and ideas are inspired by real people, and to add a touch of realism a number of real actors, writers, and so on of the era are mentioned in passing. One scene, essential to the plot, involves a performance by Tommy Cooper, complete with a number of his jokes (courtesy of the Estate of Tommy Cooper) - nicely done.

Peter Tyers


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