Tag Archives: houdini

Review ~ Houdini and Conan Doyle

Cover via Goodreads

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Drawing on previously unpublished archive material, this sensational story of two popular geniuses conjures up the early twentieth century and the fame, personalities and beliefs that would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
Genre: history

hosted by Doing Dewey


Magic Monday ~ Houdini and Doyle, redux


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.

For readers in the US, Houdini and Doyle finally premiered several weeks ago. Okay, maybe “finally” only applies me and a certain corner of the internet—magic/history buffs who were terribly interested in what this show would be like. While Houdini has had a greater amount of traction lately and Doyle, via Sherlock Holmes, is always on the edge of pop culture, it isn’t every day that a TV show features a magician as a major character along side one the most famous authors who ever lived. So, the question is: How is it?

It is…not very historically accurate. I know, shocking! Actually, as John Cox at Wild About Harry points out, the depictions of Houdini’s tricks are very good. Michael Weston’s Houdini is the most brash, American depiction of the man that has been seen on film, and it’s likely more accurate.

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Magic Monday ~ Houdini & Doyle


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.

Magic is getting a bit of media play lately. There’s the Now You See Me movies, Fool Us on the CW (one of the network’s top-rated shows), strong showings on America’s Got Talent by Mat Franco and Piff the Magic Dragon, and History’s Houdini mini-series. Along the lines of the latter, Fox has picked up the ten-episode series Houdini and Doyle.


While Houdini isn’t my favorite magician ever and the series will play fast and loose with historical facts, I still can’t resist period piece mystery, especially one that might involve some magic history.

For more information on the series and all things Houdini, check out John Cox’s excellent Wild About Harry.


It’s Monday, What Am I Reading?

I’m sad that I missed the Holiday Readathon last weekend. I’m in the mood to read!


The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 1 by Ryan North & Erica Henderson – I bought this for my niece for Christmas and I’m making sure that it’s age appropriate. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The Magician and the Cardsharp by Karl Johnson – Yep, still reading this one, but I should finish soon.

Chef Maurice and a Spot of Truffle by J.A. Lang – I’m interested in the form of cozy mysteries and this has been on my Kindle for a while. Any cozy suggestions? Lay ’em on me.

It's Monday! What Are You ReadingIt’s Monday! What Are You Reading, hosted by Book Date


Magic Monday ~ History Channel’s 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.

A year ago, I had a Saturday Cinema post about various screen incarnations of Harry Houdini. Last Monday and Tuesday, the History Channel broadcasted their mini-series and I figured I’d give it my Cinematic Houdini treatment and a general review.

Houdini 2014.jpg

“Houdini 2014”
Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Houdini (2014)
Adrien Brody – 6’1″

  • What it’s got: Houdini as a kid growing up in the small town of Appleton, WI (except it wasn’t a small town), including his brother Theo. Royal performances for everyone in Europe, including Rasputin. Bess threatening to leave due to the dangerous tricks; Harry having affairs, including little bit of bondage for the 50 Shades set, a biting comment from Bess about marrying a Jew. Most of the signature tricks, including disappearing an elephant (except that’s not how it was done at all).  Engineer Jim Collins (except Jim Collins wasn’t an American). A nod to Houdini’s film career. The Halloween curse. The gut punch.
  • What it’s missing: Houdini’s other siblings–it was a big family. “Mundane” jobs before becoming a performer. Martin Beck. Needles. The Scotland Yard challenge. Houdini’s interaction with other magicians. Houdini and Hardeen (his brother Theo) working together to keep imitators to a minimum. The Houdinis inability to have children.

The History Channel’s Houdini includes quite a few things that haven’t been seen in a Houdini biopic, but gets so many things very wrong. John Cox at Wild About Harry has a two part post of fact-checking (night one, night two) that goes in-depth about inaccuracies. The general reaction to the mini-series has been mixed within the realm of Houdini-philes. On one hand, there’s a level of disappointment and even rage at what the History Channel is portraying as truth. On the other, most are also happy that Houdini is getting some play in a nice, medium-to-big-budget manner. The movie is nice looking, though the writing is somewhat flat and I don’t think Adrien Brody quite has the angry-short-man ego to pull off Houdini.

I’m not a fan of Houdini, but when reading about  turn-of-the-20th-century magic, he is inescapable. There is also a certain amount of embellishment that occurs when magicians set down their biographies. I’ve seen several comments along the lines of, “This is schlock, wouldn’t Houdini love it?” I think he would definitely love what a Salon writer is calling the Houdini-Industrial Complex. What bugged *me* about this biopic is something that bugs me in general about what writers (and maybe especially screenwriters) sometimes decide to dramatize. This movie goes for low-hanging fictional fruit.

The biggest example in Houdini is the portrayal of Houdini’s wife, Bess. By all accounts, Bess was supportive of her husband’s career. But the easy dramatic beat is: Bess is upset by Harry doing dangerous escapes, but Harry *needs* to do dangerous tricks. Conflict ensues. To me, there are at least two other angles. A.) Bess didn’t act in the cliched way you’d expect from a wife and didn’t have a problem with Harry doing dangerous things. Or, B.) The tricks really weren’t dangerous. Do we deep down think that Houdini risked his life so often, or that maybe he was, you know, a professional magician who created the illusion of peril? That’s harder to write.

There’s plenty of drama in Houdini’s life. He grew up in poverty and was determined not to live so as an adult (but didn’t blame his father for those humble beginnings). He was an organizing *and* divisive force in the magic community. He had his own motion picture company, which became a bit of a thorn in his side. Like most magicians of the era, he faced having to make the change from vaudeville to a bigger stage–something he did quite well. (Until the elephant scene in Houdini, I hadn’t realized how much I was looking forward to seeing the trick in some fashion. With visions of the enormous New York Hippodrome in my head, I was disappointed that the TV version involved a circus ring and some silliness with gauze on poles.)

Houdini is far from being my favorite magician and Houdini is far from being my favorite movie about him.


What Am I Reading?

I’ll be working on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, at least until a late-week trip to Omaha. I’ll probably only take my Kindle with and both of the former are physical copies. I don’t know what I’ll read ebook-wise. It seems too early to read the two ARCs I have planned for R.I.P.. I had a slow start with Kavalier & Clay, but it turned into compulsive reading over the weekend. For Deal Me In, I have a second Janet Berliner story, which I’m not really looking forward to.

What Am I Writing?

On the cusp of 15,000 words on In Need of Luck. Eric’s been working hard on PHYSICa, so I’ve been on my own a bit more than previously. He gave the first 14K a read-through last week. So far, so good, aside from one or two things that will get rewritten.