Sunday, March 6, 2011

New Houdini book by Christopher Sandford coming in November

Big news! A new non-fiction Houdini book by Christopher Sandford, Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, is due to be released by Palgrave Macmillan on November 22, 2011. Here is the book description as it appears on Amazon:

Renowned mystery author Arthur Conan Doyle and famous illusionist Harry Houdini first met in 1920, during the magician's tour of England. At the time, Conan Doyle had given up his lucrative writing career, killing off Sherlock Holmes in the process, in order to concentrate on his increasingly manic interest in Spiritualism. Houdini, who regularly conducted séances in an attempt to reach his late mother, was also infatuated with the idea of what he called a “living afterlife,” though his enthusiasm came to be tempered by his ability to expose fraudulent mediums, many of whom employed crude variations of his own well-known illusions. Using previously unpublished material on the murky relationship between Houdini and Conan Doyle, this sometimes macabre, sometimes comic tale tells the fascinating story of the relationship between two of the most loved figures of the 20th century and their pursuit of magic and lost loved ones.
Christopher Sandford has published acclaimed biographies of Kurt Cobain, Steve McQueen, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen and Roman Polanski. He has worked as a film and music writer and reviewer for over twenty years, and frequently contributes to newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Rolling Stone has called him "the pre-eminent author in his field today."

This is pretty exciting, especially the reference to "previously unpublished material." By the way, we first caught wind of this book back in September 2009.

Pre-order Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini


  1. Previously unpublished material, yet again. There is no end to new Houdini stuff!

  2. If I were Massimo Polidoro, I'd be miffed about the subtitle. He wrote a book titled "Final Seance: The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle."

  3. Well, Ernst and Carrington beat them both to it in 1932 with "Houdini And Conan Doyle: The Story of a Strange Friendship."

  4. I was surprised when Polidoro used a title so close to the '32 book, especially as that book is still around as a print on demand.

    You know, what is with the sudden explosion of interest in HH and Doyle?

  5. I'd have to re-read the relevant parts of the Houdini bios, but I wonder about the truth of this common trope about Houdini: He tried to contact his mother after her death. He became enraged at the fraudulent mediums, so he devoted the latter part of his life to exposing them.

    But is that what really happened? First, when did he start attending seances and sending investigators to seances? It wasn't just after his mother's death, was it? Wasn't it around 1920, years after his mother died?

    Second, he knew from his teenage years the tricks of mediums. He and Bess worked those tricks themselves as young adults. Houdini in middle age couldn't have been surprised that mediums were frauds.

    Just asking, as the saying goes.

  6. I've actually been tempted to do a full blog post on this one, Eric. Unless it's found in dairies or letters that I haven't yet seen, you're right, there is NOTHING to support the idea that Houdini attended seances after his mother died or that his interest in Spiritualism was directly linked to her death. As you say, from a young age he was interested in Spiritualist effects as part of the art of magic. His mother dies in 1913. Houdini doesn't get involved in his anti-Spiritualist crusade until the 1920s. Really, it's his friendship with Doyle, and his desire to win their public debate, that makes Houdini go after mediums. His mother's death was 10 years behind him at that point.

    It's a lazy narrative assumption that we see used again and again, including in this book's description.

  7. Maybe the false impression stems from the Tony Curtis movie.

  8. The Curtis movie certainly cemented this myth. I think it may stem from Houdini relating his own grief for his mother to those whom mediums were taking advantage. That and the Atlantic City seance may have created a false timeline in the public mind that Houdini had only recently lost his mother and was on a quest. Houdini certainly behaved like his mother had only just died, even ten years on. It was a mental link, and then became a physical/narrative link years later. I actually think Houdini would be horrified at the idea that people would think he'd turn to a medium after his mother died.

  9. That's a good point. Maybe he told mediums about his mother as a pretext for visiting them. After all, if you're a medium's client, you must want to talk to someone in particular. It would be suspicious otherwise.

    I wonder: Did Houdini ask Lady Doyle to contact his mother, or did she just assume he wanted contact with his mother?

  10. I don't think he asked. In fact, if I remember correctly, they volunteered the seance, probably hoping to help convince him. They certainly knew his mother was the way to get to him. But they should have done a little more research. It's odd. Were the Doyle's out and out frauds, or was there some kind of self delusion going on? Maybe Lady Doyle really did believe these words were coming from "the beyond." Sort of a version of speaking in tongues.

  11. I get the impression they were believers but the belief made them blind to the reality of what they were experiencing. I think it is just like any kind of religious mania in that sense. People really feel they have experienced a "presence" or something but the feeling comes from the state of excitement they get themselves into rather than anything "otherworldly".