Friday, 6 September 2013

Review: The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman

Hardback book cover of a secret life of harry houdini
Why did I read a biography of Harry Houdini? Well, why not? :) Actually, a friend of mine made a passing comment about how difficult it would be to escape from a straight-jacket (as you do) and I realised how little I actually knew about the man who was renowned for that very thing, other than he was probably quite good as escaping from (previously) unescapable stuff. Turns out there's more than that, otherwise this would be a very short biography.

Summary: Since his death eighty years ago, Harry Houdini's life has been chronicled in numerous books, films and on television. Now, in this ground-breaking biography, renowned magic expert William Kalush and bestselling writer Larry Sloman find the man behind the myth.

Drawing from millions of pages of research, they describe in vivid detail the passions that drove Houdini to perform ever more dangerous feats, his secret life as a spy and a pernicious plot to subvert his legacy. It is an intimate and riveting portrayal of Houdini, the man and the legend.

This is the only biography of Harry Houdini that I have read, so I have no idea how it measures up in comparison to any others. However, I can tell you how much I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I whipped through this thick, fairly heavy non-fiction in three days and enjoyed every second. It's engrossing, accessible and just generally fascinating throughout.

To begin with, it's thorough but not to the point of boredom. I don't feel the need for biographies to tell me the minutiae of the subject's life and Mr Kalush and Mr Sloman have respected my wishes in this area. It begins with Houdini's childhood but provides only a brief summary, for which I respect the book even more. Then we're straight onto his magic and escapism, which is conversely extremely in-depth.

It covers a lot of different areas - aviation, films, the Secret Service, the army, his challenges, his fellow magicians, etc. Naturally some are more interesting than others, but I never knew he dabbled in so many different things. Did you know he was the first person to a plane in Australia? Oh, and let's not forget the 'spy' rumours. I hadn't heard these before, but on the blurb of a different edition it says 'in exchange for his cooperation, the governments of these two countries (Britain and America) facilitated his rise to the top of the world stage.' Apparently it's A Thing that Harry Houdini was a secret agent. I would have automatically disbelieved it, but there is evidence (and I'm a lawyer - I'm holding them to a high standard of proof!) that he reported back to his government on the conditions of German jail cells and trained certain agents in escaping from restraints. I'm sceptical that he was involved any more than this, but it's still amazing that he actually was part of the war effort.

That's partly the conclusion I've come to, actually. I'm not sure he was a nice man (judging by his arrogance and how aggressively he denounced his competition), but I do think he was a good one. He spent $50,000 (back then!) just on entertaining the troops during the War and funded several charities with varying objectives, not to mention his perseverance in debunking fake mediums.

Ah yes. Spiritualists. I learnt an awful lot about this particular area and it was written absolutely amazingly. I had no idea he was so politically active - he tried to push a Bill through to prohibit phony mediums completely and attending every meeting to demonstrate how fake seances could be pulled off. He became such a threat that there were several attempts on his life by the spiritualists.

Which leads me neatly to Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, that one. This part had me on the edge of my seat and opened my eyes to all sorts of new information. Did you know his wife was a medium and he was actually an active Spiritualist? He died with very little money due to opening a psychic bookstore near Westminster, just as an off-side. Anyway, apparently he and Houdini used to be good friends until this debacle exploded and well... spoilers! I didn't have a clue about any of this previously but now I think of it every time I see a Sherlock Holmes book. It just doesn't add up in my head with the methodical fictional detective!

I've somehow ended up reviewing the man instead of the book, haven't I? Sorry. Well, it's good, anyway. It's written in a strange mix of styles that actually works really well. A chapter will begin written almost like a story, with proper dialogue, thoughts and feelings but then switches almost seamlessly into standard non-fiction. It's weird, but I liked it. It might not be for everybody though - my boyfriend started to read this book but the style annoyed him to such an extent that he got distracted by something shiny and gave up.  

Clearly Harry Houdini was the basis for books like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. He created his own magical encyclopaedia, controlled his own magazine, refused to recognise any theories but his own... Sound familiar? He does seem like he should have been a fictional character, which makes reading a biography all the more entertaining. The fun of a story, but you're learning! *shocked face*

I've done it again, haven't I? *swooshes back to discussing the actual damn book* Anyway, believe it or not, there are facts about Harry Houdini that I haven't already told you in this review, so you should go buy the book and learn them. It's well-written, entertaining and impartial (for the most part), so it's an excellent place to learn more about the legend you thought you already knew.


  1. It is this type of interesting thing with this post of yours. I had been interested with all the topic along with the flow in the story. Keep up to date the truly amazing work.

  2. AAAAAH CRAP. Another one for the wishlist... *wearily plods away* If I spend, like, £400 on our next meet-up and have to hire a man to carry all my books home for me like it's frickin' 1850, I BLAME YOU. And me a bit. BUT ALSO YOU. :P

    And hey look, a spam comment! But it's okay, because you're interesting (twice!) and amazing and have Flow. It's so nice when a spammer compliments you effusively in bad English, isn't it?

    1. £400? Pah, it's a BARGAIN. And you know I'm going to see that as some kind of challenge target now, right? :)

      And last time I could actually have USED a man to carry my books, instead of a non-Mexican shop assistant pushing baskets into my hands and then having to shuffle the carrier bag along the floor of HMV with my foot!

      But yes, you should read this. *nods emphatically*

      Eh. I'd rather that than them insulting me effusively in bad English!

      'Than than them.' That can't be right, can it? :s

    2. Hoooooow ironic. I did spend about £160 (so not quite £400) and I DID BUY THIS BOOK. And we did the carrier bag shuffle in WH Smith! :D

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