Wednesday, October 19, 2016

REVIEW: Bob Loomis delivers a Houdini masterclass

Houdini's Final Incredible Secret by Bob Loomis is a masterclass in the study of Houdini and magic history. It's really one of the most remarkable works ever produced on any single magician. This densely packed 323 page book is about a single magic trick that Houdini performed once. That's it! How can that be a book? Well, imagine spending a week in Houdini's home, getting to know every aspect of his personality and his environment, and then travel with him step by step in the trial and error development of a single perfect magic feat. Yes, that's a book!

The trick that is the focus of Bob's 20 year investigation was performed by Houdini for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bernard M.L. Ernst in his New York home in 1922. Only one description of the trick exists, told by eyewitness Ernst in his 1932 book Houdini and Conan Doyle: The Story of a Strange Friendship (pages 240-245). The trick involved producing the written message "Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin" on a chalk slate suspended in the middle of a room in full view of Doyle and Ernst.

Past books have mentioned the famous feat and some have attempted to explain it, including most recently The Secret Life of Houdini. Bob examines and dismisses all previous explanations, which he shows invent or omit key descriptive information to fit their own theories. Bob assigns himself the task of explaining the trick exactly as described by Ernst.

It's clear that Bob is a researcher par excellence (he was the librarian at the Magic Circle in London). It's also clear he delights in doing research. Bob shares that joy by taking the reader step by step through every bit of his own process with lively prose. It might even be too much process for some. But even if one feels lost at times, there are gold nuggets along every part of the trail, so one never dares jump ahead.

I was especially impressed with Bob's overview of Houdini's character (the good and bad) on pages 67-89. Even if one doesn't want to take this full journey, the first section of the book is required reading for anyone with a desire to better understand Houdini. Gold, gold, gold!

So did Bob solve the mystery of Mene Tekel? Well, he certainly offers an explanation that is technically feasible, and he's backed it up with proof that the methods -- and there are several methods at work -- were all familiar to Houdini. The explanation is not simple or elegant. It requires divergent elements to work perfectly in sync, and the possibility of failure seems remarkably high. Maybe that's why Houdini only performed it once.

One aspect of the explanation that I don't think Bob nailed as well as others is how Houdini acquired the message that Doyle wrote several blocks from Houdini's house. Bob offers several scenarios in which confederates on the street could have gotten a peek at the message. But it just seems high risk for Houdini to leave such an essential part of the trick in the hands of others and chance. It also just seems a little improbable that such a complicated and seemingly nonsensical message could be gotten from a glance or by watching the end of a pencil. And would Houdini really be able to canvas the entire neighborhood with confederates, including policemen? Well, this is Houdini we're talking about, so maybe!

To his great credit, Bob takes Ernst at his word and accepts that Houdini not only had to fool Doyle, but Ernst as well (who remained with Houdini at all times). But I'm not entirely convinced Ernst was an innocent observer. He was Houdini's lawyer and confidant (consigliere?) in all matters. My own feeling is he was in on the trick. This would help explain some things. But there I go twisting the stated facts to fit my own ideas, just as others have done in the past. As I said, Bob doesn't give himself that luxury. As impossible as it all seems, Bob shows us that the impossible was possible.

In the end, whether or not you fully agree with all of Bob's findings, you'll still agree that this is a remarkable book. In Houdini's Final Incredible Secret, Bob Loomis not only teaches us how Houdini did it, but he also gives a lesson in how to research Houdini and magic history in a meticulous and ethical way. It's a book that deserves a standing ovation.

You can purchase Houdini's Final Incredible Secret at Amazon.com (U.S.) and Amazon.co.uk (UK).

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6 comments:

  1. Thanks a lot for the comprehensive review. The book is definitely wonderful.

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  2. Nice write up. Better than mine. Love this book!
    Jack
    Houdiniandhardeen.wordpress.com

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  3. Mr. Loomis is wondering how he could top this wonderful book. An in depth study of the Mirror Challenge would make an interesting follow up.

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  4. While I concur that the book is enjoyable, and definitely belongs in the library of every serious Houdini fan, I genuinely believe that the 323 page effort regarding the explanation of the events described can be summed up in three words.

    It never happened.

    While I don't have time to offer elaborate explanation for my beliefs at the moment, I have consulted with other performers on this very topic over the years, and I've made an extensive study of not just the Houdini Conan Doyle relationship for more than a few decades, I've also studied their lives individually.

    As a consequence of the latter, I am confident in saying that neither Doyle, Houdini, nor even Ernst, for that matter, is on record as having ever, even once, mentioned this supposed episode to another living soul.

    Given Houdini's record for either satisfying his ego, driving home a point by any means necessary, or both, it's very difficult to believe that he would not have mentioned it in print. Moreover, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would most certainly have shouted it from the rooftops, if he believed Houdini had once again resorted to supernatural means to accomplish his effects. If he was convinced it was just a magic trick, he would've mentioned that too, in print, as he did on other occasions when he was particularly impressed.

    When time permits, I intend to write an article on this topic, which will include the five or six places that this trick is mentioned, prior to this supposed incident having occurred.

    Finally, it takes a significant leap of the imagination to suggest, as this author does, that Houdini subtly suggested the words supposedly written by Doyle on the slip of paper while on his "walk." This is of primary importance, of course, because the words written were, in fact, the marketed name of the trick when Houdini himself purchased purchased it.

    I'll be happy to share other information later, but again, I did essentially enjoy the book, if it is just a bit long-winded, and it does contain factual information the average reader will not have encountered elsewhere. It's definitely worth having, something that can't be said of most Houdini or Conan Doyle biographies.

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    1. VERY interesting ideas here. And when one deep dives into any event in Houdini's life, you really do have to consider the possibility that it never happened (I did this with the Scotland Yard escape).

      I look forward to your article. And if you'd like to share it here as a "guest blog", that would be great. :)

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  5. A book that just gets better on each re-read, I find it more enjoyable because Loomis invites us to disagree with him, to find and correct flaws or mistaken assumptions. I continue to look forward to Greg Edmonds's write-up, because the only rule is that when it comes to Houdini -- one NEVER knows.

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