Review: Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sandford

Book cover of Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sandford

I do seem to be doing through a bit of a Houdini and Conan Doyle kick lately, don’t I? First there was The Secret Life of Houdini, which also had a large section on Sir Arthur, and then the last book I reviewed was The Coming of the Fairies, Sir ACD’s explanation of why the Cottingley Fairies must be real. I think it must be fascination of the awful, like when you can’t take your eyes off a car crash, because he was a strange man.

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Drawing on previously unpublished archive material, this sensational story of two popular geniuses conjures up the early twentieth century and the fame, personalities and beliefs that would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

Houdini and Conan Doyle is a more than readable joint-biography of two of the strangest most interesting men from the last century. There’s a good mix of facts/academia and storytelling that works quite well. Respectable but accessible. The problem is, I think I expected an in-depth look purely on their relationship, considering the title and the reasonably short length of the book. It’s actually an alternating biography of them both that doesn’t always work.

I’m not sure it was entirely necessary to start from birth with both of them. Considering they don’t meet until they’re middle aged, roughly half of the book discusses their completely separate lives with desperately and dubiously trying to link them together. It’s very disjointed as it alternates between the two as it never quite manages a seamless switch.

After they do eventually meet and inevitably fall out, it gets quite repetitive. It feels like this book lists every damn time one of them was recorded saying something about the other. I understand the thoroughness but it doesn’t make for interesting reading.

It seems like the focus is primarily on Sir ACD, who I actually find the less interesting of the two. Houdini-wise, I didn’t learn anything that wasn’t mentioned in The Secret Life of Houdini, which was referenced several times in this book. The author is clearly a bigger fan of Arthur Conan Doyle, evidenced by the amount of space given over to him and phrases like he ‘consistently always thought the best of people’ and that he was ‘the more obviously couth of the two.’ Only Houdini’s arrogance is ever really discussed, while his accomplishments are skimmed over.

Of course we can’t mention Sir Arthur (it’s amazing how many different variations of his name I can create) without touching on Spiritualism. This book actually manages to make him sound more crazy than the one he wrote himself, The Coming of the Fairies. It streeeeeeetches whatever it can to make him agreeable and correct and it’s so non-subtle that it actually has the opposite effect:

“Personally,” he wrote, “the author is of the opinion that several different forms of plasma with different activities will be discovered, the whole forming a separate science of the future which may well be called Plasmology.” Although their occult qualities remain debatable, the use of plasmas today in the production of everything from sanitary gels to supersonic combustion engines goes some way to fulfilling Doyle’s prediction.

Okay, no. Conan Doyle theorised that one day there would be a branch of society who researched What. Ghosts. Were. Made. Of. He didn’t predict hand sanitizers, for Christ’s sake. Sometimes the book goes so far out of its way to protect Sir Arthur that it just sounds silly.

It is interesting how different books on the same subject can differ in interpretation. Christopher Sandford implies here that Houdini secretly did believe in Spiritualism until close to the end and that he and Conan Doyle were only superficially friendly, where The Secret Life of Houdini states that they were genuinely close friends, at least to begin with.

I feel like I’ve gone off track a little, but it’s difficult to review biographies without reviewing the subject a little. It’s not my dislike of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that puts me off this book, it’s the inordinate amount of time spent on him plus the clear bias in his favour. There’s also quite a lot of padding – there are a whole four pages at the end just dedicated to what his children and siblings ended up doing.

To conclude, I think it’s fairly obvious that I feel there are better biographies of both Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle than this one. It’s biased and over-padded, and even the accessible tone can’t overcome that.


  1. Etudesque says:

    Whoa I sometimes forget that Sir ACD and Houdini were weird bff's until all that skepticism put a damper on things. I'll have to check this one out, and I appreciate that you pointed out that it was "respectable but accessible", which is encouraging when tackling on historical non-fiction. Thanks for letting us know about this one!

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