The Feints And Temps Of Harry Riser by Ed Brown

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 1996)

I don't know how many times over the past few years I have either heard or spoken the phrase, "When is the Harry Riser book coming out?" Suffice to say, a lot of times indeed. (Not as many times as "When is the Lou Gallo book coming out?", but nevertheless, a lot of times.)

Now the day has come, and we can all breathe a satisfying sigh of relief, as we compete for who will be most convincing when uttering the newly repeated phrase: "I told you it was going to be worth waiting for!"

Harry Riser is a true classicist, a master of the literature, theory, practice and technique of classical sleight of hand conjuring; a master of the kind of thinking and material that threatens to be lost to a generation of "magicians" raised on videotape. If you don't know who Harry Riser is, perhaps I should mention that there are three forewords at the start of this book, contributed by John Braun, the late Charlie Miller, and John Thompson, respectively. If that isn't enough to rock you back on your heels, then not only do you not know as much as you should about these individuals, but sit down and catch your breath as I quote from Mr. Thompson's comments. "...Harry is one of my mentors and in that capacity his thinking has had a profound influence on my work in just about every area of magic." I consider myself extremely fortunate to regard Mr. Thompson as one of my own later mentors, and so the very idea of studying the work of a mentor's mentor presents me with an inestimably portentous opportunity.

This is the kind of book that warrants attentive examination and reflection for those who regard themselves as serious students of the art of conjuring. If you're inclined to buy the latest best-selling gadget with which to fool your lunch buddies and expose the method to your family, or sit around and watch videotapes rather than spend two hours perfecting a sleight, or waste a night at the local magic meeting rather than study a book that's more than five years old and perhaps track one down that's even out of print, then this book is not for you and you can move on to the advertisements in the back of the magazine. As the late Charlie Miller writes of Mr. Riser, "The true student will read carefully every line. Harry's magic is not for beginners, nor bunglers, nor the mere curious."

This is not to say that every routine relies on intensive sleight of hand; Mr. Riser's use of gimmicks is as diabolical and well-thought as his manipulative material and so the demands of this volume lie not in the technical so much as in the intellectual and aesthetic. It will take time to fully appreciate Mr. Riser's thinking and rationales, and yet that is time that will be abundantly rewarded because such appreciation, once gained, will reap timeless rewards throughout one's work. Consider even the title of this book, which is explained in the author's introduction in the combined words of Mr. Riser, Ed Brown, Professor Hoffman, and the great Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. It was Robert-Houdin who utilized the terms "feint" and "temps"; the former consisting of "a false show, a pretense, an imitation, a simulation," and the latter "literally a 'time' or 'season,'... perhaps, 'favorable moment.'" This explanation begins the book in appropriate fashion, because throughout the text Mssrs. Riser and Brown offer a guided tour through the works of great masters of the standing of Robert-Houdin, Hofzinser, Sachs, Erdnase, and later masters like Miller and Vernon. Those who aspire to mastery could not do better in attempting to grasp some of the most sophisticated notions of conjuring practice and theory than to ignore the latest wunderkind video and spend some quality time with teachers of this caliber; this is the kind of conjuring that can be realized only as a product of hard work, clear thought, and the reading of fine books.

The book includes a sizable portion of intimate stand-up magic or, in the truest sense, parlor magic. And so besides the wonderful close-up card and coin routines, there is general magic including two billiard ball routines, one lacking the use of any gaffs, the other a unique routine utilizing a feke but designed expressly for closeup conditions. The Ball, Cone and Box Routine Combines the use of a ball and cone in the manner of the Vernon routine, along with the use of a Morrison Pill Box, a rare bit of apparatus but a combination so elegant that a careful consideration is a joy even in the reading. The same applies to Mr. Riser's Walnuts Trick, an approach to the routine described in the Vernon Chronicles; once again, this is finely constructed work that makes for enlightening reading, even if the Properties are unfortunately difficult.

Mr. Riser's routine for the Cups and Balls is legendary among the close-up cognoscenti, and now at long last reaches the light of day. The casual student who has yet to master the theory and technique of the cups and balls will likely not fully appreciate the economy of effect and method in this original and elegant approach. The distinctive routine includes Mr. Riser's unique method for loading the cups while both the loading hand and the cup are fully in view on the table, a technique in which speed will only mar the effect, but the proper use of feints and temps will produce an impenetrable mystery. Other general magic includes Mr. Riser's version of Bert Allerton's now-classic Hornswoggled, an excellent shortchange routine with bills, and the Stack of Quarters, with a terrific handling that, precisely executed, should yield a devastating effect. There is plenty of other coin material as well, including a carefully constructed shelled Coins Across, routines with an Okito Box, and material substituting the use of a change purse for an Okito Box, a concept that Mr. Riser pursued before most of the New York "coin kids" who contributed their versions in Kaufman's Coinmagic were even born.

There are 32 items all told, and a sizable portion rely on playing cards. Some use elaborate and original gaffs; some utilize common gaffs; others rely on the purest of sleight-of-hand technique, while a few are virtually self-working; and all will provide deep lessons to the thoughtful student. Mr. Riser's approaches to the MacDonald Aces are simply stunning, exploiting gambling themes in effective ways. An ace-cutting routine entitled Erdnase Aces is virtually a guided tour to many of the important techniques described in that ubiquitous but often inadequately understood work; careful study of this routine will reap rewards for a lifetime of cardicianship. There is a fascinating section on marked cards, a subject we have rarely seen addressed in the contemporary literature.

Perhaps unexpectedly there are no examples of Mr. Riser's signature faro work and perfect locations; one can only hope that perhaps a future volume will present this aspect of his creativity (and maybe his linking ring routine, too!).

Ed Brown has been chronicling the work of Harry Riser for many years, and we all owe him a debt of thanks for his efforts. His low-key prose is carefully wrought and his eye for detail is eminently instructive. The illustrations by the ever-more-present Earl Oakes are bountiful and invariably enlightening, and consistently printed in a somewhat enlarged format, to great effect. Simply designed and produced with quality materials, including a two-tone cover with gold stamping in a delightful type style, the book is a pleasure to behold both within and without. In fact, one appreciates the absence of a dustjacket that would have only served to conceal the lovely cover beneath, resulting in a package whose elegant content is reflected in the design. A lot has no doubt happened in magic since Harry Riser's magical molding was fully cast, but the lessons of his era are everlasting, and contemporary students would do well to attend to that past, the better to build a bridge to the future of their art.

8 - 1/2" X 11" hardbound with foil stamping 270 pages; 390 line drawings plus diagrams and photographs; 1996; Publisher: Kaufman and Greenberg