Saturday, September 30, 2017

Derek Tait's new book is a Houdini ESSENTIAL

Derek Tait's The Great Houdini: His British Tours is now available in the U.S. (a month early). Here's my review.

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 (U.S.) and (UK).



    1. Great review John! Glad it's a scholarly book and not a Hollywood screenplay in sheep's clothing.

    2. Yes this is a superb book and essential for all Houdini followers. I would have like a bit more comment and analysis but as a record of Houdini's work in the UK this is a wonderful resource and there are some very good illustrations

    3. I received my copy last week. I am enjoying the authors academic approach!


    4. Thanks for the excellent review, John. It's very much appreciated!

    5. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniDecember 31, 2017 at 8:59 AM

      It's one of the better Houdini books written in a long time.

    6. Just bought a copy. What do you consider are the other essential core non-fiction works? Silverman, Culliton – what else makes the cut for you?

      1. Silverman and Culliton for sure. Also Christopher's Untold Story is an essential reference for me. It's maybe even the book I reference the most. There are also many excellent specialized works like Manny Weltman's Escape into Legend, Houdini's Texas Tours by Ron Cartlidge, and Bruce MacNabs Metamorphosis. And the Sliverman and Kalush notes books are very useful. I could go on and on!