To date there have been approximately 152 non-fiction works on the life and career of Harry Houdini (double that if we include fictional works). But only a small number of these would I consider essential -- a work that so contributes to Houdini history that is a must read. Essential works do not come along all that often, and that's why the arrival of Derek Tait's The Great Houdini: His British Tours is cause for celebration, because this is a new essential Houdini work of the highest commitment and caliber.
Derek takes a specialized approach, focusing only on Houdini's performances in the UK. The author spent 11 years unearthing the exact dates and details of just about every Houdini appearance. The book is packed with new, fascinating facts. Among the many revelations is Houdini's original iron bar escape (page 91); a detailed account of a bridge jump in rough seas (page 145); a mysterious operation Bess underwent in 1913 (page 194); fresh details on his Prison Cell & Barrel Mystery (which I mined for this post); and much, much more. The book is laid out chronologically, so using this book in conjunction with Frank Koval's Houdini Research Diaries allows one to place Houdini in time and place like never before. As I said, essential.
But before plunging in, one should understand this is very much an academic work. Derek does not compress, finesse, or fictionalize information for the sake of narrative. He sticks to the chronology and reproduces accounts of Houdini's act in full, even if that means repetition (my God he escaped from a lot of packing crates!). When available, Derek also includes reviews of the other performers on the bill, creating context for the world of show business that Houdini inhabited. While an academic approach may alienate a casual reader, the serious reader will be exhilarated. With this approach, you can truly see how Houdini evolved his act and grew as a performer.
But even the most general Houdini fan will thrill to the many beautiful photos in the book, some never before published. So on that level alone, this book is a must buy for all.
The only area where I might fault the author is his inclusion of excerpts from Will Goldston's Sensational Tales of Mystery Men (1929). I don't entirely trust these colorful accounts of Houdini as Goldston was a bit of a myth-maker. His story about Bess crying the key away from the Mirror representative is infamous. But these tales are still interesting to read, especially for those who have not encountered the Goldston book or his stories before.
Finally, Derek does not interject himself or his own theories into this work. He reports. This is refreshing in an era when biographies sometimes irresponsibly mix fact and speculation. Instead, Derek takes one of the most hands off approaches I've seen in any Houdini book, presenting his findings in full without comment or conclusion. It's a selfless approach and an ethical one. He does the hard work of knocking down the door so all can enter and freely explore the fascinating world of Houdini in the UK. Bravo!
Purchase The Great Houdini: His British Tours by Derek Tait at Amazon.com (U.S.) and Amazon.co.uk (UK).
- 'The Great Houdini: His British Tours' released in UK
- The Herald finds Houdini in Plymouth
- 'The Great Houdini His British Tours' coming in July