Arcardia by Roger Crosthwaite

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii April, 2000)

"Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast," said the Red Queen. Roger Crosthwaite is an Anglican priest, a practicing psychotherapist, and a believer in and proponent of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, so apparently he's at the halfway threshold for the Red Queen's recommended dosage of impossible beliefs. Then again, one could say he is now batting well beyond .500 in this area, considering that he also believes that his latest book is worth publishing.

Mr. Crosthwaite's previous book, Roger's Thesaurus, co-written with Justin Higham (reviewed in January 1995 Genii), was a dense and lengthy tome, reflecting Mr. Crosthwaite's passion for the Marlovian record and technique, containing some items of academic interest if not much in the way of commercial fare, along with a generous dose of self-promotion. Would that this new book offered nearly as much value. To begin with, the book has more padding than a Wonder Bra. Right at the beginning, the page numbering begins with the title page, proceeding to include the acknowledgments, dedications, and right through the table of contents, so the actual content of the book (such as it is) does not begin until page nine—hence we actually have a 189-page book to start with. Out of that, I count 32 pages of epigraphs, some as long as a page long—that's about 16% of the book! I mean, really, what is the point? Are you trying to prove that you read a lot of magic books, or is it merely that all these people are better writers? When the seasoning outweighs the main dish, it's time to change the chef.

But that's just for starters. There are several pages of homage to friends and colleagues. Following a preface of sorts (labeled an "orientation”), a foreword and an introduction, we are then finally gifted with an opening chapter (following the full page consumed for the chapter title) consisting primarily of homage to Peter Warlock and David Berglas; some historical background about the Think-A-Card effect (with which the author strongly desires to identify himself, having proclaimed in Roger's Thesaurus via the third person voice of his co-author that he "is one of the fore-most exponents of Think-a-Card in the world;" and some theoretical material, both by the author and by Justin Higham, both of whom offer up such densely ponderous and turgid prose that it's a wonder the book can even be lifted.

Now, while we consider tossing this 23-page section on the dung heap along with the previously described wasted pages, we might as well add 34 pages out of a chapter dubbed "The Gambler" and which contains two tricks described in a dozen pages—the balance (the aforementioned 34 pages, if I've correctly avoided double-counting the pages therein of epigraphs) consisting of sleights and "finesse" that have essentially no value whatsoever, consisting of an obvious and basic handling of the Dribble Shift (another Higham contribution, along with a palm variation, already described in Roger's Thesaurus, albeit apparently incorrectly), some false dealing technique that does not seem particularly ground-breaking nor especially well described, and then some out-and-out re-descriptions of a number of standard items, the "finesses" described consisting of basically what anybody would do who actually uses these basic sleights like jog-glimpses and the like that are decades old and already commonly described in the literature, or yet another rehashing (as if we needed the one in Roger's Thesaurus) of the Marlo LTP Peek Steal, which has to be one of the sillier moves in all of magic.

Let's see, now—that leaves, what, about half the book left. But of the total of approximately 17 actual tricks (depending on how you count them) included in the book, 10 of them are contained in the chapter optimistically entitled "The Mindreader," consisting of variations on the Think-a-Card plot—43 pages of variations, in fact. Other than a simple switch that might well have some use for those who want to be able to easily switch in any of three possible outs once the spectator names the card, most of what's here is dreadfully trivial and tiresome material that is expansively over-written. If you're seriously interested in the Think-a-Card plot (surely in the proper hands the greatest single effect you can do for a layman—just ask David Blaine)—then there will be nothing here particularly new or interesting to you, and if you're not interested, well, this certainly won't inspire you. (And I encourage you to consult my comments on this subject in the review of Mr. Crosthwaite's previous book.)

So this section is 43 pages, less two pages for the meritorious switch, which when added to the previously identified and tragic loss of tree life, brings us up to 139 highly questionable pages. We then come to a section contributed by Wesley James, cardman and longstanding member of the New York City underground. Mr. James offers what are really two items under the heading of "The Original Twist Pass." The first is an extremely fine essay on the subject of theft and ethics in magic, in which he recounts a hair-raising but not surprising tale of how a young magician tried to abscond with credit for the move, the Twist Pass, that Mr. James subsequently offers here. In this thoughtful piece, Mr. James offers sound reasons as to why theft is never a good idea, reasons that go beyond the mere reproof of one's colleagues. He also offers excellent argument as to what constitutes theft, and why independent subsequent invention, without knowledge of that which has preceded you, is not grounds for claims of ownership. (In short: If tomorrow you invent special relativity and you never heard of Einstein, you don't get credit. You get a raspberry.)

This seven-page essay easily comprises the smartest and most valuable material in the book. It is accompanied, as it happens, by several striking ironies however. One is the fact that the essay and the sleight are both reprinted from the magic journal, Onyx. That this material is a reprint, yet the best thing in the book, is certainly mildly ironic in itself. What is utterly bizarre, however, is that in the very same issue of that journal in which Mr. James's essay originally appeared, the editor, Ken Simmons, stated that he would "offer no apologies" for publishing a trick similar to a marketed item of Doc Eason's, because "if we were not aware of its existence, why apologize?" This Neanderthal and deeply clueless perspective, maintained solely by people unable to comprehend the sentence above which mentions Mr. Einstein, runs precisely opposite to that stated by Mr. James, a turn of events I find almost as incoherent as the idea that Mr. Simmons seems to be garnering some small following for himself, despite the outlandish mis-crediting, non-crediting, and thefts that regularly litter the pages of his largely and appropriately ignored publications.

There is one remaining irony in this tale, which is far less egregious but nevertheless requires mention, and which indeed I brought to Mr. James' attention privately when the item first appeared in Onyx. That is the fact that Mr. James apparently independently reinvented the Twist Pass himself! There is nothing wrong in this in itself; it is apparently an error, not a theft (at least as matters presently stand). But the fact is that Geoff Latta, a near-legendary underground sleight-of-hand star in New York, created this exact move—the sole difference being that Geoff added a riffle at the completion, but the mechanics are entirely identical—and showed it around to colleagues circa 1980-1982, at the very latest—while Mr. James dates his move explicitly a dozen or more years later, in 1994. Many people saw Geoff do this sleight—it was primarily a session move—including myself, Richard Kaufman, Peter Samelson, and certainly many others. It is ironic that Mr. James, who is a longtime friend and colleague of Mr. Latta's, somehow never happened to see it himself. These things happen. But surely, unlike Mr. Simmons, Mr. James will take his own advice, and give credit to the actual originator who preceded him.

But wait—as the Ronco commercials say—there's more. There are four pages promoting the pseudo-science and new age cottage industry of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). The credulous and the PEA (perhaps a redundancy, as I pointed out in my review of Roger's Thesaurus) will no doubt be fascinated, while the scientific community continues to wait for any significant clinical evidence.

And so, Mr. James' reprinted material aside, what have we left? We have, I believe, seven tricks described in roughly 32 pages. These items are, by and large, adequate. Perfectly appropriate fare for magazines and lecture notes. But unfortunately I am compelled to comment on one of those tricks, in which Mr. Crosthwaite adapts the "Exclusive Coterie" presentation from Erdnase for an effect (not an assembly) with four Queens. Of course, that presentation is an element in what has become Ricky Jay's trademark card trick—notwithstanding his signature card throwing material—namely the use of the Erdnase script with Mr. Jay's particular handling of an assembly (as Erdnase originally intended). Mr. Crosthwaite, an amateur, in a lengthy and arrogant footnote, defends his use of the script on the grounds that since the material was originally published with the intent to be used, anyone should be able to use it. Apparently not a man with an eye for subtlety—an odd characteristic given his other professional endeavors—Mr. Crosthwaite does not even mention the idea, apparently invisible to him, that a professional may indeed develop a kind of visibility that lends a certain signature or trademark quality to a piece of work.

While he may not be able to readily and outright prevent others from using such material, responsible professionals studiously avoid using it out of respect, and also from the common-sense realization that it is foolish to do otherwise. Hence singers, for example, become identified with particular songs to the point that no other professional would dare touch the material themselves, unless they were deliberately paying homage to the better known performer—lest the audience be comparing them and perhaps unfavorably at that.

This idea apparently does not occur to Mr. Crosthwaite, despite the fact that Ricky Jay is today the most widely recognized close-up magician since John Scarne. That doesn't mean that many people know who he is in the grand scheme of things, but the fact that he has any public standing at all, and that his distinctive take on the Exclusive Coterie is indeed the opening of his show, which has been produced in several U.S. cities plus in Australia and London, renders Mr. Crosthwaite's usage ridiculous and rather pathetic. I'm sure it will make no difference to Mr. Jay, however, it makes a difference to me, since Mr. Crosthwaite goes so far in his poorly reasoned defense to quote me from an essay I wrote for Genii in July of 1993.

The statement quoted here was originally made for the purpose of establishing the clear difference between theft and borrowing with permission, as opposed to those frequent cases wherein magicians often use euphemisms like "borrow" to try to avoid the fact that to take something without permission—even a joke, a single line of script—is theft, and that to borrow requires explicit permission. Mr. Crosthwaite takes this argument out of context, and misappropriates my words to suggest that once something is published, it thereby remains eternally for equal use by all, all the while ignoring the concept of signature or trademark work by professional entertainers and artists. The idea is wrong—not to mention the spelling of my name.

We're almost done, but for the pages upon pages of gratuitous footnotes. One of these even quotes from a report of a performance at a magic club meeting!—what next, footnotes from Linking Ring reports? Elsewhere, endless minutia is infinitely rehashed—really, it is an author's responsibility to simply make a choice sometimes and then stick with it; he needn't cite everything ever written about the Mechanic's Grip in order to decide whether or not he wishes to use the term. And yet, despite this ceaseless wandering, when it comes time to describe a somewhat obscure sleight—the so-called Marlo/Steranko Table Reverse (and how's that for a strange bedfellows credit?)—rather than assist the reader in actually learning the trick at hand, the hapless student is left with a footnote that points him to Steranko on Cards, Marlo in the New Tops, Marlo's Off the Top, and Vernon's More Inner Secrets of Card Magic. Now it's true that I have all of those sources on my shelf, but I can certainly envision an intermediate reader who might not have any of them—and we could have had the sleight described in the space it took to provide the damned footnote!

And so, in the end, we have what amounts to virtually a homeopathic amount of content in these 198 pages. Of course, homeopathy is based on the crackpot premise that in extreme dilutions (beyond Avogadro's Constant) in which no molecules of the original active ingredient remain, water retains a "memory' of the ingredient, and will continue to be effective. Perhaps Mr. Crosthwaite also believes in this impossible premise—which puts him ever closer to the Red Queen's prescription.

Arcardia • by Roger Crosthwaite • 6" x 9" hardbound w/ dustjacket • 198 pages • 55 photographs and line drawings • 1999