The wait for Escaping From Houdini, the third installment in Kerri Maniscalco’s Stalking Jack the Ripper series, is finally over and *spoiler alert* this book is great!
When we last saw our heroes Audrey Rose and Thomas in Hunting Prince Dracula, they had just unmasked a brutal murderer and survived the most harrowing experience of their lives. (That labyrinth of dark and sinister tunnels below their school was way beyond any nightmare, am I right?) And so, they did what any normal people would do and got the hell out of there as quickly as possible.
This time, instead of jumping into a carriage and fleeing the country, they hopped on a large ship set for America that has nightly performances by a group that calls themselves the Midnight Carnival. But, in true Stalking Jack the Ripper series fashion, murder climbed aboard as well, causing them to scramble to solve a whole new deadly mystery.
While the first two novels in the series dealt with or were fashioned after infamous killers, Escaping From Houdini deviates from the pattern in that the Midnight Carnival, instead of a singular killer, is at the center of the mystery. I was a little hesitant about the change in focus at first because, though he’s in the title, Houdini isn’t historically known as a murderer. But the confusion and ambiguity around the inclusion of Houdini (an American icon and hero in many ways) in the title as well as the story just adds to the overall atmosphere of the novel.
And speaking of the novel’s atmosphere, Escaping From Houdini is far less creepy than its predecessors. Yes, the murders are still awful to behold, but there’s also something very striking and intriguing about each of them. That and they don’t really conjure that constant feeling of dread and danger lurking around every corner.
Audrey Rose and Thomas still very much deal with a murderer in this third book, but the focus here is more on the techniques and the spectacle of it all. The killer, because of the way they plan and execute their murders, feels more playful than sinister. (Or, well, as playful as a murderer can be, that is…)
Yet, behind all that playfulness, it’s very obvious that Maniscalco took great care in doing research for this novel. While the other installments clearly required a lot of research into historical context and lore, the amount of detail put into Escaping From Houdini demonstrates that Maniscalco’s research this time around required so much more. Her knowledge of sleight of hand, tarot, and carnivals in general is evident in every intricate description and slow reveal of information. In fact, it’s so well done that I’ve started doing my own research and found myself looking for someone to do a tarot reading for me.
Every sentence of this novel drips with decadence. The settings and Midnight Carnival performances are lush yet dangerous, beautiful yet terrifying. It was easy to understand just how Audrey Rose comes to be so enthralled with the Midnight Carnival and the performers because, as readers, we’re put under the same exact spell.
Speaking of Audrey Rose, Escaping From Houdini is very much a transitional novel for her. In this installment, she has some growing pains. The spectacle around her causes her to lose herself in ways that we haven’t seen previously. She seems less self-aware and confident than before, feeling much more her age here than in previous novels. She makes mistakes and sometimes has to pay dearly for them. But she never keeps trying to move forward and get to know herself better.
One of the things that spurs and yet complicates her journey of self-knowledge is the introduction of a love triangle of sorts. In this novel, we meet the debonair and cunning Mephistopheles, the Midnight Carnival’s ringmaster. While he and Thomas are both clever, Mephistopheles has that “bad boy” air about him. He’s an enigma in that it’s impossible to know his true motives or the underlying meaning behind everything he says, partially because his face is always hidden by a mask. Though danger and death seem to follow the handsome ringmaster, it’s hard not to be intrigued by him.
And it doesn’t help that he has his eyes set on Audrey Rose.
Now, I’m not usually one for triangles and I love Thomas with all of my heart, but I couldn’t help but be swayed by Mephistopheles and his devil may care attitude. He presents Audrey Rose with a real challenge and she’s all the better for it. His presence helps to create the ideal conditions for her to grow as a character. Though her journey is all her own and Mephistopheles is not to be given credit for it, he definitely serves as a catalyst here.
Perhaps the most captivating result of the love triangle and Audrey Rose’s personal journey is the discussion of freedom that pervades this novel. Thomas and Mephistopheles each represent a certain kind of freedom for her. Again, they’re not her sole ticket to freedom (as she is dependent on no man), but they each symbolize a different path that’s open to Audrey Rose.
In a life with Thomas (and under his definition of freedom), Audrey Rose is free to come and go as she pleases. As Thomas reassures her multiple times throughout Escaping From Houdini, the last thing he wants to do is treat her like a caged bird. But with this path comes the constant struggle of trying to prove herself in a man’s world and fighting for respect.
And then there’s Mephistopheles’ path. His brand of freedom is free of all trappings of society. Choosing his type of freedom would mean going completely off of society’s grid and living by a completely different set of rules (in that there wouldn’t be any at all). She could be whoever and whatever she wanted to be and wouldn’t have to fight societal standards to do what she wanted because they wouldn’t apply to her. But she also would find herself completely disconnected from everything and everyone she loves.
Again, these paths are not dependent on the men in her life. It’s very clear that Audrey Rose is free to make her choice without the influence of either Thomas or Mephistopheles. They merely serve as representations of what that kind of freedom could look like for her.
Admittedly, while I was reading Escaping From Houdini, I didn’t realize the deeper meaning of this love triangle and focused a lot on my love for Thomas. However, I really love the way Audrey Rose grapples with how she defines freedom here. We’ve seen her progressive nature before (as well as the ways in which she’s allowed society to still bind her), but she takes much bigger steps toward who she wants to be in this novel than she has before.
(Oh and, just to be a tease: One of these steps may include saying “screw it” and allowing herself a few “unladylike” stolen moments with Thomas that drove the butterflies in my stomach absolutely crazy.)
It’s hard for me to say anything negative about Escaping from Houdini because of how masterfully crafted it was. The atmosphere and imagery was very much my kind of aesthetic and I loved losing myself in the spectacle. And the reveal at the end? I should’ve seen it coming from miles away, but Kerri Maniscalco’s brilliance when it comes to misdirection and casting doubt kept me distracted and just interested in the spectacle throughout the whole novel. I usually pride myself on being able to predict twists and reveals, but have to tip my hat to the author because she definitely got me.
That being said, there was one small aspect of the novel that, in my opinion, didn’t meet the standards set by the rest of the novel.
As a big Thomas fan, I am sad to say that I was a bit disappointed with his role in this novel. Though I loved seeing Audrey Rose grow and mature without Thomas’ influence, I felt like this novel lacked the banter-y and even tender Cressworth scenes that I loved in the first two novels. Sure, there are still a couple in this one (and the ones that we do get are satisfyingly steamy), but Thomas is more absent here than he is present.
With Audrey Rose spending so much time with Mephistopheles and the Midnight Carnival (as well as doing more solo investigation than usual), Thomas disappears for chapters at a time with little explanation as to how he has been occupying his time. After all, the series is told solely from Audrey Rose’s point of view. So because she and Thomas don’t regularly discuss everything that they do in their alone time (because that would be kind of weird?), I found myself just imagining Thomas sitting alone in his quarters, staring at the wall, until the next meal or social function.
Granted, Escaping From Houdini takes place over a smaller window of time than both Stalking Jack the Ripper and Hunting Prince Dracula so perhaps this is just us seeing more of what their time apart looks like but, after the terrifying finale in Hunting Price Dracula (and subsequent coupling), I had just expected to see more of Thomas and Audrey Rose together.
But even this small disappointment couldn’t keep me from loving this novel. It’s one of those stories that you’ll want to read as fast as you can so that you can take it all in but that you also don’t want to finish too quickly. Fans of Kerri Maniscalco’s Jack the Ripper series will be absolutely delighted by this third installment in Audrey Rose’s story. It was definitely worth the wait.