Small but Deadly by Paul Hallas
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2005)
Paul Hallas confesses on the fourth from final page of Small But Deadly, that "Packet tricks are simply card tricks" and that they do not comprise "a separate branch of magic ...." He also cautions that "Packet tricks should be used sparingly," perhaps the most valuable sentence in the entire book. "Do one," he says, "and move on to other tricks." On this point if few others we thoroughly agree.
Why then write an entire book about packet tricks? In fact, if you took two excellent tricks, both mentioned in this book, accomplished purely by sleight of hand with ordinary cards removed from the deck, you will have covered many—not all, but certainly many—of the plots that are revisited ad nauseam in the packet trick genre. I have used versions of the small packet "All Backs" and Darwin Ortiz's "Jumping Gemini" for probably more than 25 years, and, call me crazy, but I see no reason why one would wish to badly imitate their effects in endless variation done with inferior moves and gaffed cards. (For the record, the small packet "All Backs" should be credited to Harry Riser, as an application of Marlo's Quick 3-Way "Everywhere and Nowhere" procedure; the credits as provided by Mr. Hallas are woefully incomplete. "Jumping Gemini" combines the small packet Ambitious Card plot with three complete changes of the card faces.) And note that I do not present this question merely in the name of efficiency or pragmatism. I mean it solely in the name of effect. What is the best effect, and what is the best way to accomplish it?
But, all right—the effect may not be the thing others are focused on. Some of us are focused on method, in its infinite variety and complexity. In that case, show me exciting methods, dynamic and original new methods. Or skip that, just give me a meticulous book on the history of packet tricks and a thorough and well organized (even if incomplete) reference volume. This book could have been any of those things. It is, unfortunately, none of them.
This book is a meandering, disorderly mess. The author calls it "a personal journey through the world of packet tricks." Well, I hope he enjoyed the trip, but I wish he'd kept his journal to himself. I not only didn't enjoy it, I found it a profound waste of time and it left me feeling a little queasy. The author once marketed a version of "Oil & Water" he dubbed "Bread and Butter," with pictures of bread and butter on the cards. I cannot tell a lie: the thought of that doesn't make me queasy, it makes me puke.
In my book, Shattering Illusions, I included an essay entitled "First Do No Harm," in which I suggest that when you place an ordinary pack of cards in front of an audience, you immediately invoke—without any added effort—the elements of "chance, fate, gambling, skill, fortune-telling, money, power, love, sex." And, further, that you can use all of these elements to your advantage if, "first, you do no harm." However, be forewarned: "Sadly, there is much harm that can be done to drain the life and passion out of this complex, elegant, and sensual prop. Magicians seem to have applied some of their greatest ingenuity to this dubious challenge ... you can wipe the faces off them and replace them with a giant red or blue diamond that looks like nothing any normal human ever imagined, much less saw, on a playing card, and finish it off with a little printed cartoon."
So much for all the dumb crap dealers print on playing cards, and the fact that one of the most successful packet tricks of all time—perhaps the most successful—is that bit if inanity, complete with ludicrous cards, known as "Color Monte." Yes, so much for that.
In the first trick in the book, you are instructed to "force the four cards by means of the Hindu Shuffle Force." So much for the caliber of the tricks.
The section on "Oil & Water" concludes with a paragraph about Marlo's important Quick 3-Way sequence, a widely used method for the "Everywhere and Nowhere" plot. So much for organization.
There's an interesting discussion of "Vernon's Variant." Herb Zarrow's "Herb's Variant" from Kabbala (Volume 1, Number 9) is not mentioned. In the section on "Wild Card" we are told that Darwin Ortiz released a commercial version, "but I never saw this so know little about it." Thanks for your definitive expertise, sir; I hereby inform you that that excellent routine is described in Darwin Ortiz at the Table, copyright 1988. So much for thoroughness.
The author flatly declares that the "10-Card Poker Deal" is "certainly superior to a three-card monte routine ..." Elsewhere he says that monte "has no place in a magic act unless you are presenting a full gambling themed show or expose," but he is perfectly happy to include tricks about gambling and cheating throughout the book, which he appears to mix with magic performances. So, apparently demonstrating cheating is acceptable, but a pretend con game isn't. So much for making a lick of sense.
In a section about Brother John Hamman, the author (after failing to mention Norm Houghton concerning the Flushtration Count) derides "fast-buck merchants" who market card tricks, offering that "any money Brother Hamman made from his marketed effects was used for charitable causes rather than personal gain." I wonder where the author's profits for this book are headed, or what he did with the money he's made on his own frequently marketed packet tricks. So much for holding together a cogent thought from the beginning to the end of a single sentence.
Throughout, the author engages in chatty, oblique digressions that repeatedly tested my attention span and upped my impatience. Concerning, for example, the aforementioned "10-Card Poker Deal": "I have recently been considering using one of the stand-up versions with large cards." How nice for you. How fascinating. Do keep me informed. This conversational noodling is pervasive; elsewhere we find the author "just teasing" his friend, Jon Racherbaumer. And how did the Tupperware party go, girls? Further on, we are presented with the name of an actor who starred in an old movie which inspired the title of a non-existent magic book that Mr. Racherbaumer once "started" to write. Oh, for crying out loud already, can we please get back to the point? Oh, I remember now—we're not sure the book has a point.
In a section on Alex Elmsley we find no mention of the Ghost Count, Elmsley's original name for what we now know as the ubiquitous Elmsley Count. In discussing the fingertip grip for the count, the author never mentions Vernon, nor the fact that Vemon's specific use of the fingertip grip was because it was efficient when used (and only when used) in combination with his twisting flourish in "Twisting the Aces."
Many readers will doubtless be aware of the very popular dealer item, Ton Onosaka's "Tonte," a monte routine done with jumbo cards. In this book about packet tricks, the author blithely informs us that "I have never seen (Tonte), but have heard people speak highly of a Michael Close routine for it." Gee, I wonder if there's any human way possible to find out where that routine might be published? Anyone care to help Mr. Hallas out of his desperate research plight?
Speaking of credits, the author speculates that Grant's "Cheek-to-Cheek" may have inspired Vernon's "Triumph," when the opposite is in fact the case. Concerning the "Open Travellers," the author cites an ancient secondhand credit from a Paul Harris book. He then derides the plot, offering as evidence that it is not as commonplace as other assemblies. Perhaps that's because, unlike most commercially marketed packet tricks, this trick requires skill—even while its deeply magical effect remains a pet layman-killer of countless top card men.
And then there's this bit of unintentional comedy: "To be honest, the magic world needs a new three-card routine as much as it needs fluorescent invisible thread." But apparently it needs more packet tricks?
I admit that this book could serve some limited use as a reference volume perhaps even with its lack of completeness and infinite inaccuracies and inanities if it had an index. That it does not renders it, with all finality, utterly useless.
The book is published by H&R Magic Books, highly regarded and widely respected as one of the leading retailers of magic books in the world. It is a shame and a mystery that so far their published output has been disappointingly uneven. For every marvelous Derren Brown *Pure Effect *or Absolute Magic, there are pointless messes like this, or even solid works like Bob Cassidy's The Art of Mentalism (reviewed in January, 2005 Genii) that suffer from sloppy production or second rate design efforts. I sincerely hope that H&R soon commits itself to making certain that the standard of their publishing arm matches or exceeds the standards their retail business have long met.