My brother Ken also dabbled around with super hero comics from time to time, which is where this issue of BATMAN came from–it’s another that was purchased for him but which I eventually wound up with.I liked Batman well enough, but in this period I found his adventures a bit too colorless for my tastes, and so preferred to spend my loose change elsewhere. I will say that, to this day, I’ve got a great appreciation for that cover copy–it’s perhaps the thing that I remember about this issue the best.
Well, that and the art. This was another job produced by a young Michael Golden, just starting out. And while it evidenced some flaws of youth, it also had a great sense of style to it. Golden used the interplay between light and shadow well in these days, and he was able to take what could have been a standard mystery tale and elevate it into something a bit better. His Batman always looked good as well, owing a hair to Neal Adams but really making it his own thing. Got to call out the title, too–Houdini Whodunit is a coupling on a par with Magic Show/Tragic Show.
The story opens on action, with Batman waylaying a gang of criminals pulling a late night heist. Commissioner Gordon shows up in the aftermath, and tells the Darknight Detective that the Mystery Analysts of Gotham are working on a mystery–a murder–and would like his assistance. The Analysts had been introduced back in the 1960s, but they hadn’t been seen in many years. Writer Gerry Conway limits their numbers here to three, wisely.
After Batman travels to the Analysts’ meeting room, he hears their story–each one has had a similar experience over the past few days. They each discovered the body of a young woman in a shocking place, the authorities were called, ambulances arrived to take the stiff to the morgue–then there was some manner of commotion, and in the aftermath the body had vanished. The three aren’t even certain that a murder has taken place, or if this is all some manner of practical joke. Batman suggests that their next place of inquiry is the morgue.
While questioning the various ambulance attendants who were with the bodies when they disappeared, Batman notices a suspicious figure lurking in the shadows, and gives chase. But the man eludes capture by setting off some flash powder in the Dark Knight’s face–and can you imagine such a thing getting the better of Batman these days? In any event, this additional clue leads Batman and the Analysts to the Magic Palace, a private club for magicians, where they learn that the woman all three Analysts had seen dead is in fact June Gold, a magician’s assistant. She wanted more money and was threatening to expose the secrets of the headliner David Hamton. And she’s been missing for a few days. The team also meets other suspects–psychic Lisa Morrow, mentalist Glenn Falkenstein and apprentice Martin Monroe. As Monroe explains his alibi, both Batman and Analyst Kaye Daye notice something and race out of the room–only to be cold-cocked. Again, not something you think of these days as being possible to do to Batman.
When he comes to, Batman finds himself trapped in a replica of Houdini’s famous water-escape–but without the secreted tools the master magician used to escape. But Batman trained himself not to perform, but to survive, and e ignores the handcuffs he’s in, instead pitting his strength against the rapidly-filling water tank. He’s able to break through the glass, and can then extricate himself now tat he can breathe. He races to the stage where Monroe is performing, and accuses him of the murder publicly.
But Monroe has a number of dangerous magic tricks up his sleeve, and he gives Batman enough of a fight for the two to explain the plot. Monroe wasn’t after June Gold, he was trying to frame Hamton, so that he could become the headliner. And it was Hamton who created the three instances of June Gold’s body appearing and disappearing, in an attempt to get Gotham’s top detectives to investigate the case and prove him innocent. And it was Hamton who scuffled with Batman in the morgue, as he kept tabs on the investigation. So in the wrap-up, the killer is caught and all’s well. This is the sort of fair play mystery story that you just don’t see in comic books any more, but they were once a staple of Batman’s repertoire. (Also, in case anybody was worried, that’s a trick guillotine on that page above–Batman didn’t just cause Monroe to become decapitated for his crimes.)