13 January 2009

The Secret Life of Houdini

I have been carrying this heavy book around for weeks, through a holiday trip to Germany and on bus rides downtown. It's rather slow going, but the other night I finally finished it. An interesting account of the life of a household name who seems too iconic to be real. The biography succeeds on evoking a real person, with real passions and real flaws, but it doesn't really succeed in making Houdini seem like a whole person. We feel we are getting the results of thorough research; the synthesis of that research is less satisfying.

For example, a scene is recreated between Houdini and a woman not his wife. The scene carries clear implications of an affair. Following this construction, with its implications, the authors note, "we will never know..." if the affair occurred. There are a lot of similar instances, where research points to possibilities the authors highlight but won't completely commit to. The result is a biography where you feel you're repeatedly led down the garden path and then left to make your way back to the standard narrative on your own.

Ultimately, it leaves you wondering about the point of the biography. Ostensibly, it contains revelations about Houdini's romantic entanglements, his relations with the U.S. Secret Service and spy and police organizations throughout the world, and about the orchestration of his unexpected death by key members of the Spiritualist movement (folks who use seances to consult with spirits) who he had spent many years trying to expose. But the revelations are all--or mostly--heavily qualified, which tends to detract from their value.

In the end, the book is of great interest for people already curious about Houdini--it certainly contains a wealth of detail. But I doubt it will hold other readers.

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