Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sandford
In the early twentieth century, Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were two of the most famous men alive, and their relationship was extraordinary:
Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ultra-rational detective Sherlock Holmes, nonetheless believed in the supernatural. After eleven family members, including his son and brother, were killed in the First World War, he searched tirelessly for word from the dead.
Harry Houdini, the great magician, was a friend of Conan Doyle’s but a sceptic when it came to the supernatural. As a master of illusion, he used his knowledge to expose psychics who he believed exploited people’s insecurity and grief.
Drawing on previously unpublished archive material, this sensational story of two popular geniuses conjures up the early twentieth century and the fame, personalities and beliefs that would eventually pull them apart.
(via back of the book)
Usually, I copy-paste book summaries from Goodreads, but none where very good. So I used the text from the back of the book and still… Well, Doyle had been interested in spiritualism before WWI. And technically, he didn’t lose his son in the war, but the horrible outbreak of Spanish flu near the end of the war. So, this one was at least 97% accurate…
I’ve had this book on my want-to-read list for 5-ish years under the title Masters of Mystery, before finding this edition at Half Price Books. Going in, I knew the basics of this story. If you’ve read a biographical sketch of either man, this contentious relationship comes up. Further, I read David Jaher’s The Witch of Lime Street a few years back, which focuses on Houdini’s (sort of) dedunking of Margery Crandon, who Doyle strongly supported. But I hadn’t read anything in-depth about Houdini and Doyle’s friendship and falling out.
Sanford gives each man a decent biography before their encounters with each other, though the story feels more weighted toward Doyle. There are a few possible reasons for that. Doyle was in his 60s when they met; Houdini was 15 years his junior. Therefore, Sanford simply had more of Doyle’s life to tell. But the imbalance might also be due to my personal bias. I simply didn’t know as much about Doyle. I’ve read (more than enough) Houdini biographies, but never a good one about Doyle. Something that surprised me was just how prolific he was. I never really imagined Doyle writing thousands of word per day on multiple projects. It puts his dissatisfaction with Holmes’ popularity in a different light.
One thing I didn’t like about the pre-meeting biographical sections was Sanford’s attempts to make Houdini and Doyle’s lives parallel. It felt like he was trying too hard to make their families and careers match up, as well as, sometimes, their proposed psychological states.
Personally, though, I found this book a little depressing. As a skeptic myself, it was hard to read about Doyle being so wrong about things and, as a non-fan of the magician, Houdini being so annoyingly right. I’m also not sure I actually buy their “friendship.” It feels more like a publicity story that took on a life of its own. Yes, they hung out a bit. Houdini liked knowing other famous people, especially ones with some intellectual weight. Doyle would have considered it a major coup if he’d been able to “turn” Houdini to spiritualism. That’s not really friendship. As much as I’d like for them to be the Mulder and Scully of the 20s (or even the Houdini & Doyle of the 00s), they weren’t.
Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Duckworth Overlook, 2012
Acquired: 11/15/17, Half Price Books