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The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero Paperback – 6 Aug 2007
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"Kalush and Sloman appear to have raked through every known Houdini archive to produce the most comprehensive and controversial biography ever written about the man, with its contention that he was a spy who may have been murdered by a cult."-- Tony Barrell, "London Sunday Times"
Using exclusive access to newly uncovered archives, Kalush and Sloman reveal the clandestine agreements in which the British and Americans recruited Houdini to be an active secret agent. In exchange for his cooperation, the governments of these two countries facilitated his rise to the top of the world stage. The authors give thrilling accounts of his assignments, such as his participation in early aerial surveillance and his use of his own magic magazine to communicate espionage-related information. After the war, Houdini embarked upon what became his most dangerous mission when he took on the Spiritualist movement. Convinced that Spiritualist mediums were frauds, he became obsessed with exposing them. But the Spiritualists were a powerful adversary. An organized network of fanatics, led by Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, worked relentlessly to orchestrate a campaign that would silence Houdini forever. Grounded in solid research, but as exciting and dramatic as a good thriller, THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI traces the magician's long and circuitous route from struggling vaudevillian to worldwide legend.See all Product description
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Houdini was a showman, a raconteur and someone known to bear a grudge and used his influence within magician's circles to lambast others who he felt were either frauds or plagiarisers of his inventions within his profession. However he was clearly out of his depth when he took on the likes of Conan Doyle, previously a friend through their shared interest in seances and medium ship when Houdini exposed Lady Doyle, a famous psychic and medium as a fraud starting off a feud that was to last for years and steering Houdini into the direction where he saw it as a religious duty to expose fraud in that rather frightening and sinister world. And no one were more sinister than the Crandons, Dr and Mina aka Margery,a celebrity medium known expelling ectoplasm from her vulva of all places, who galvanised the entire Spiritualist community against Houdini's denunciations.
It seems that none of Houdini's exploits were as dangerous as taking on this world which the authors characterise as corrupt, exploitative, and sexually perverse, with the Crandon couple as a veritable evil pair. Conan Doyle is depicted as a sad credulous dupe who seemed to have lost hie powers of deduction to what Houdini described as "religious mania". It seemed that the Crandon's and their followers would stoop to nothing in attacking Houdini including racial abuse via the spirit world and predictions of his death.
For me this was the most fascinating part of book. For others it could be the detailed descriptions of his escapes from prisons around Europe, after he would challenge prison authorities to imprison him in the impregnable cells. Or his work as an illusionist.
My two criticisms of the book are that it was somewhat over descriptive and fairly spare on details about his long marriage with Bess Houdini, which was not always so happy but far from loveless; his numerous affairs including with the widow of his friend the author Jack London, Charmaine London, and the sometimes difficult relationships with his siblings and their families. Secondly the conclusion of the book is slightly disappointing. It hints strongly at Houdini being murdered by the Spiritualists even suggesting a level of complicity from Conan Doyle and his wife( Houdini famously described him as more Dr Watson the Sherlock Holmes).
Unfortunately there is only circumstantial evidence for this and no one is precisely sure what eventually did kill Houdini at the age of 52. However as an entertaining and in depth account of his strange life I doubt that this volume could be bettered.
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A rather daunting prospect - 600 pages of small type on any subject. This one, I just had to try though - after seeing the television miniseries at Christmas...Read more