Magic Monday ~ Review – Mrs. Houdini


I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature. I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

This book was provided to me by Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Mrs. Houdini by Victoria Kelly

Cover via Goodreads

A captivating debut novel, meticulously researched and beautifully imagined, about the passionate marriage of Harry and Bess Houdini—a love story that defied death itself.

Before escape artist Harry Houdini died, he vowed he would find a way to speak to his beloved wife Bess from beyond the grave using a coded message known only to the two of them. When a widowed Bess begins seeing this code in seemingly impossible places, it becomes clear that Harry has an urgent message to convey. Unlocking the puzzle will set Bess on a course back through the pair’s extraordinary romance, which swept the illusionist and his bride from the beaches of Coney Island, to the palaces of Budapest, to the back lots of Hollywood. When the mystery finally leads Bess to the doorstep of a mysterious young photographer, she realizes that her husband’s magic may have been more than just illusion.

In surprising turns that weave through the uncertain days of the dawn of the twentieth century and continue into the dazzling 1920s, Mrs. Houdini is a thrilling tale that will take you deep into the heart of one of history’s greatest love stories—asking what drives people to believe in something bigger than themselves—even as it reveals the famous magician’s most remarkable feat of all. (via Goodreads)

I had to be careful when reading Mrs. Houdini to let it be the book it was and not the book I wanted it to be. I’d love to read a book from the perspective of a magician’s wife/assistant that emphasizes her part in magic performances. One of the things I’ve realized about David and Fannie Abbott is that Fannie knew *everything* and was generally more complicit in his performances than their guests would have realized. Mrs. Houdini isn’t about Bess Houdini’s involvement in Harry’s tricks. I’d also love to read a book that places Houdini more solidly among his peers. On one hand, Harry Houdini did a lot to consolidate magicians in the early 20th century. He also constantly picked fights and feuded with…nearly everyone. Mrs. Houdini is not a book about those relationships either.

Mrs. Houdini alternates between Bess Houdini after Harry’s untimely death, and their evolving relationship, told in chronological order, before his death. The “past” sections hit some of the major beats in Houdini’s career: starting out at Coney Island and struggling in the vaudeville and circus circuits, the cuff escapes and jail breaks that made Houdini famous in Europe, bridge jumps that extended his fame in the US, Houdini’s forays into movie-making, and of course the Houdini’s relationship with Arthur Conan Doyle and spiritualism. I was surprised that the whole investigation of Margery Crandon didn’t get more time, considering that Crandon took a shot at seducing Houdini. But honestly, I felt the best parts of Mrs. Houdini were the chapters that featured Bess after Harry’s death–when the narrative wasn’t burdened by the weight of the magician.

The post-Houdini chapters focus on a woman who has been left behind. Her husband has died, leaving her with a goodly amount of debt and seemingly shackled to his legacy, and she is childless. Bess is an interesting character in a tough situation which provides a lot of room for drama. The book obviously takes a fanciful turn as Bess comes to believe that Harry is leaving her a series of messages in a code that absolutely no one else knew. Not only are there fictional stretches, but also a small slice of absolute fantasy. All in all, the story is not really my thing. It didn’t really elicit in me the poignancy I think it was shooting for.

I have to take umbrage with the blurb’s claim that Mrs. Houdini is meticulously researched. The two books that Kelly mentions in her end note, Harold Kellock’s Houdini: His Life Story and Kalush and Sloman’s The Secret Life of Houdini, are considered by Houdini scholars to be the most controversial. Doubtless, Kelly read more than two books and, obviously, liberties were taken in the name of fiction, but there are some oddities. Like mention of an escape “hanging upside down, from a giant milk jug filled with water” which seems like a mash-up of two separate tricks. Chapter dates for some events (Young’s Pier, meeting Roosevelt, the Doyle seance) seem to have been shifted by a couple years one way or the other, which I don’t think would have mattered in the narrative. It’s possible that these inaccuracies were due to my ARC and were fixed upon publication.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ebook, Atria Books, ARC, pub date: March 1, 2016
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: literary, historical fiction

Review ~ Distant Waves

Distant Waves by Suzanne Weyn

Cover via Goodreads

From the author of REINCARNATION, another historical, supernatural romance, this time focusing on five sisters whose lives are intertwined with the sinking of the Titanic.

Science, spiritualism, history, and romance intertwine in Suzanne Weyn’s newest novel. Four sisters and their mother make their way from a spiritualist town in New York to London, becoming acquainted with journalist W. T. Stead, scientist Nikola Tesla, and industrialist John Jacob Astor. When they all find themselves on the Titanic, one of Tesla’s inventions dooms them…and one could save them. (via Goodreads)

And Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini are in this book too! Obviously, it pokes many of my historical fandom buttons.

In Distant Waves, history is stretched and twisted back on itself so that many of the events and relationships converge on 1912. There are a lot of inaccuracies, some of which Weyn addresses at the end of the book. To some extent this should be read as more of an alternative history rather than a historical fiction. There are certainly a few speculative touches that pull it away from realistic fiction.

It was a readable book, fairly well-paced despite a pretty long lead-up to the Titanic. It was great for the readathon and I read it cover to cover last Saturday.

I’m not quite sure what I think of Weyn’s Tesla. Not surprisingly to me, the main character Jane, a fan of Sherlock Holmes, takes a liking to the eccentric scientist, who manages to rescue them during his man-made New York earthquake.  We’re treated to a lot of “creative genius picked on by capitalism” stories. In regards to spiritualism, Weyn leaves things ambiguous and that’s a good line to take in this book.

There was one plot point that I kind of rolled my eyes at, even in the midst of all the other stretches. In this case, it was more of a concrete problem solved by overly lucky circumstances that could have been dealt with, I think, in a less complicated manner. (I know this pitfall well; it’s one I often fall victim to.)

Publishing info, my copy: Scholastic, Inc, trade paperback, 2009
Acquired: Paperback Swap, I think.
Genre: historical, speculative fiction


Review ~ On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown

On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown by Theodore Wheeler

Cover via Goodreads

The story of an immigrant boy who’s caught up in a race riot and lynching, based on events surrounding the Omaha Race Riot of 1919. While trying to find a safe place in the world after being exiled from his home during World War I, Karel Miihlstein is caught in a singular historical moment and one of America’s most tragic episodes.

Written in the tradition of the historically-set work of Don DeLillo, Denis Johnson, and Colum McCann, On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown depicts its characters in deep personal detail and wide social panorama—from a contentious Interrace baseball game on the Fourth of July to the ear-splitting clatter of a race riot—while revealing the folly of human nature in an age of astonishing ambition. (via Goodreads)

Last week I wrote about Orville D. Menard’s River City Empire, a book about Omaha’s political and criminal boss Tom Dennison. During the 1918 elections, reformists gained a political foothold after over a decade of Dennison’s picks being elected, namely perpetual mayor Jim Dahlman. In response, crime seemed to increase in the city. The lesson: Dennison’s brand of corruption was better for the city than unchecked activity. Of course, there is also evidence that Dennison and his cronies were behind some of the high profile incidents, including men in blackface assaulting white women. Dennison had influence over the Omaha Bee daily newspaper and it reported on the assaults as well as racial unrest around the country in shrill detail. Add to that, preexisting tensions in the city due to unemployment. The accusation against Will Brown—of raping 19-year-old Agnes Loeback—was the match that lit the powder keg. A mob of thousands of white men laid siege to the Douglas County Courthouse until Will Brown was turned over to them.

Into this historical event, Theodore Wheeler places Karel Miihlstein. Karel is an immigrant, as many were in culturally diverse Omaha. He’s a good kid with four sisters, no mother, and a father focused very much on his own work as a repairer of violins. Karel has some knack at baseball, a sport that is nationally popular and an important entertainment. I don’t know how much of the July 4th baseball game is fact or fiction, but it feels real; it feels like an event that could get lodged in a young man’s mind and could lead to bad decisions later. Wheeler does a wonderful job with the setting, but an even better job giving his characters motive for behaving as they do.

Publishing info, my copy: Edition Solitude, Kindle Edition, 2015
Acquired: Amazon
Genre: Historical
Previously: I came across Theodore Wheeler while, surprise, doing research into Tom Dennison and early 20th century Omaha. According to his webpage, there is a novel length version of this novella in the works.

Deal Me In, Week 4 ~ “Private Grave 9”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Private Grave 9” by Karen Joy Fowler

Card picked: Jack of Spades

From: McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, ed. by Michael Chabon

Thoughts: Archeological digs. In recent years, they’ve been at the center of action-paced adventure tales, like The Mummy and Raiders of the Lost Arc. Slightly closer to reality, the heyday of archeological expeditions boasted of curses and blood-thirsty tomb robbers.  But my first Thrilling Tale is kind of a quiet one.

As Howard Carter is making headlines uncovering Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt in 1923, our unnamed narrator is a photographer at an “also ran” dig in Mesopotamia. Not long ago the tomb of a princess and her servants, and subtle clay shards depicting dogs and goats would have been enough to appease the dig’s patron, but not with brick-a-brac of gold and lapis being unearthed elsewhere. And don’t mention the entire level of infant skeletons that were also unearthed…

Our skeletons are too numerous to be tasteful.

Despite this, a distant relation of the dig’s director visits. Miss Whitfield is “an authoress” with five successful murder mysteries to her name. She is also a disruptive force, a pot-stirrer. She’s looking for dissent among the peaceful dig-site hierarchy. “But if you did murder someone,” she innocently asks, “would it be Mr. David or Mr. Patwin?”

Co-currently, our photographer develops a picture of Princess Tu-api which appears (to him) to show her face as it might have been in life. Is it Tu-api who is inspiring his discontent and violent visions or the evocative Miss Whitfield?

About the Author: I’ll admit it. Even as I wish that the boundary between “literary” and “genre” fiction didn’t exist, I suffer from a sort of cognitive dissonance when authors I’ve pegged as literary (Joyce Carol Oates, for example) write a genre story or vice versa. The first read story I read by Karen Joy Fowler was the Nebula award winning “What I Didn’t See.” It’s maybe light on the fantastic, but the association is enough to place her in my genre heap. That she also wrote The Jane Austen Book Club completely befuddles me. I read Fowler’s  “The Queen of Hearts and Swords” during week ten of Deal Me In 2014.

Is This Your Card?

The Jack of Spades has an early cameo.

Review ~ Conversations with Spirits

Conversations with Spirits by E.O. Higgins

Cover via Goodreads

December, 1917.

The Great War is rampaging through Europe – yet Trelawney Hart has scarcely noticed. The arch-sceptic and former child prodigy has lost his way, and now ekes out a lonely existence, taking his only comfort from the bottle.

Hart’s dissolute lifestyle is interrupted, however, when spiritualist crusader and celebrated author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arrives at the door of his London club and requests his help in investigating a man he believes to be a psychic medium of unparalleled gift.

Driven on by his anticipation of exposing the psychic as a fraud, Hart accepts. But it is not long before he finds himself helpless amidst a series of seemingly inexplicable events – and he is forced to consider whether there may be much more to life than he had ever thought possible… (via Goodreads)

Trelawney Hart is an alcoholic. Much of the plot of Conversations with Spirits is involved with the obstacles this places in Hart’s way. In fact, about 10-15% of the book is Hart traveling from London to Boardstairs, a rather long, drunken side-adventure. For a while, I kind of wondered what Higgins was up to here because the book gets a little slow. He is setting up a very important relationship, but I’m not sure it totally pays off…in this book. Hart’s an interesting character in an interesting situation and I feel like we’ve only just gotten a taste of adventures to come.

I believe this is the third book I read this year with Arthur Conan Doyle as a character. He’s a minor character here, but Higgin’s version of the writer is the best of them. Doyle is intelligent, but wreaked in his way. Spiritualism is the answer he’s found to keep his world intact. Hart could be a Holmes-type character, but he’s more real and more flawed than the stereotypical Sherlock. His deductive powers are not supernatural, and while he’s still arrogant, there are gaping holes in his ability to take care of himself.

The body of knowledge that Hart uses for debunking pulls heavily from stage magic and Higgins does a good job with the techniques. Well, aside from a character mentioning seeing “sawing a woman in half” which really won’t become a thing for another four or five years*. The method the physic medium uses to walk through a brick wall is also fairly modern, I believe, but the event is meant to be singular.

All in all, I’d definitely read a second Trelawney Hart book if one were available. High praise from me, someone who doesn’t read series.

*Anachronistic magic tricks have become a pet peeve of mine. Right now there are two recent/upcoming historical novels with tricks at their heart that didn’t really exist in their period setting.

Publishing info, my copy: Unbound, March 11th 2014, Kindle edition
Genre: Historical fiction

Deal Me In, Week 29 ~ “Every Mystery Unexplained”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Every Mystery Unexplained” by Lisa Mason

Card picked: Five of Spades

From: Tales of the Impossible, edited by David Copperfield and Janet Berliner


Magician “Professor” Flint ends each performance by endeavoring to contact the Spirits of the Dead. An illusion only, of course. Surely, the audience knows that the white handkerchief dancing around the stage is the work of Flint’s assistants, not spirits. His sword fight with an apparition is only a matter of a well-placed pane of glass and proper lighting. No one can really contact the dead. Unfortunately, when lovely Zena Troubetzskoy offers the down-on-their-luck magic act a fat payment for a seance, Flint and his son, Daniel, can’t say no. But, there is more to Zena and the man she wishes to contact, the man she left in the mountains, than meets the eye.

This is the type of story I was hoping for from these anthologies: a blend of fiction and magic history. The setting is 1895 San Francisco . Professor Flint and his act have been trekking westward through cow-towns, rail-road towns, and mining towns, complete with horses, wagons, and misfortunes. Quite similar to Howard Thurston’s tour of, as Mason puts it, the far West. The story is a nice juxtaposition between the magic ethos and spiritualism ethos and the Victorian era and the Old West. Mason knows her magic history (the title is from a Harry Kellar quote) and she knows San Francisco. I kind of saw where the plot was going, but it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story.

About the Author:

I’d never heard of Lisa Mason before this story. Her writing seems to include time-travel and cyberpunk stories set in San Francisco past, present, and future. She bibliography doesn’t extend past 2000 according to Wikipedia, but much of her back-catalog is available via Amazon and the like.

Is This Your Card?

I don’t have a card trick for the Five of Spades, but the story makes mention of the blue room illusion. This is a modern staging, I believe constructed for this TV special by Jim Steinmeyer.

Review ~ Nevermore

Nevermore by William Hjortsberg

Cover via Goodreads

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini team up to search for a literary-minded killer…

It is 1923 and a beautiful young woman has just been found outside a tenement, bones crushed, head ripped from her shoulders. A few stories above, her squalid apartment has been ransacked, and twenty-dollar gold pieces litter the floor. The window frame is smashed. She seems to have been hurled from the building by a beast of impossible strength, and the only witness claims to have seen a long-armed ape fleeing the scene. The police are baffled, but one reporter recognizes the author of the bloody crime: the long-dead Edgar Allan Poe.

A psychopath is haunting New York City, imitating the murders that made Poe’s stories so famous. To Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the killing spree is of purely academic interest. But when Poe’s ghost appears in Doyle’s hotel room, the writer and the magician begin to suspect that the murders may hold a clue to understanding death itself. (via Goodreads)

Not only does this book have Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe, but also literary personality Damon Runyon!

I am alternately intrigued by and dubious of fictional works that involve historical people. Obviously, there are certain celebrities that intrigue writers. Arthur Conan Doyle is one of them. This is the third book I’ve read in the past year with Doyle as a character and the second with Houdini (in the other case, it was a Houdini/Sherlock Holmes). For that matter, it’s the second with Poe as well, though the specter of the author plays a fairly minor part here. The Conan Doyle and Houdini team-up is particularly enticing. They knew each other, first as friends and later as semi-adversaries as their philosophies about spiritualism diverged.

There seems to be a couple of issues to consider when writing this kind of fiction. One is fidelity to events. Another is the richness of the world. For me, authors can get away with a certain amount of rearranging of events if they don’t interfere with the history of the world. Move the disastrous Atlantic City seance ahead a year and Houdini’s underwater endurance test back three years and it doesn’t bug me too much, especially if the author notes the changes. (But, have a magician sawing a woman into halves before 1920 and I’ll doubt he’s done his research.) The worse sin, in my opinion, is name- and event-dropping in an effort to show historical world-building. Like an incredibly dense chocolate cake, a little goes a long way when meeting celebrities of the day and hearing of their exploits. Mobsters, sports stars, politicians, and other entertainers come and go through Nevermore without really adding anything to the story.

In general, Nevermore suffers from having too many facets. I’m possibly going to go into the realm of spoilers here, consider this a warning. One plot involves Conan Doyle seeing the fairly miserable ghost of Poe. This causes him to question spiritualism, but not overly much. One plot involves Houdini being seduced by a beautiful medium. Priding himself on a certain level of moral standing, this causes him some consternation, but not overly much. The third plot involves the Poe murders. Houdini brags that Conan Doyle will solve them and Damon Runyon writes lurid newspaper articles about them. Unfortunately, even when there is a pattern defined, no one spends much time even attempting to put the pieces together before the last twenty pages of the book. Events come and go like cities on Conan Doyle and Houdini’s respective tours. Even the schism between Houdini and Conan Doyle doesn’t last more than a couple of pages.

There’s also a lot of fake tension. As a reader, I know that nothing will happen to Harry Houdini or Arthur Conan Doyle. This doesn’t mean they can’t be involved in peril, but the focus needs to be different. For example, and spoilers again, late in the book Houdini flies a plane from Chicago to New York in a storm. The point of this hasty trip is to beat a time constraint, but it’s written with the emphasis of “Will Houdini be killed in a fiery crash?!” I know Houdini won’t die, but I don’t know whether he’ll make it to NYC in time. That’s where the tension should be focused.

Honestly, the book could have been fine with one less plot thread, and the expendable one would be Arthur Conan Doyle’s. Runyon and Houdini would have made for a much more fun and focused team.

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
Publication date: October 1st 1994
Genre: Historical fiction.
Why did I choose to read this book? The Houdini/Conan Doyle team-up