The last time we heard from Brad Meltzer was when he "investigated" whether Houdini was murdered on his show Decoded. Among the many, many untruths perpetuated in that episode was the allegation that Bess Houdini murdered her husband because he suppressed her own show business ambitions. It was preposterous and offensive, but typical of the conspiracy-laden "reality" programs which are Meltzer's specialty.
Now Meltzer is back with a new novel, The Escape Artist, in which he once again wraps Houdini with conspiracy. This time he's reviving the idea that the great magician worked as a spy. Now, I don't mind having Houdini doing spy work or even fighting vampires...in fiction. And as with David Saltman's recent Houdini Unbound, which also features Houdini as a spy, I was going to do a post today recommending Meltzer's book as a fun new bit of Houdini fiction.
However, on Late Night with Seth Meyer, Meltzer said "it's true" that Houdini was a spy, and even trotted out the specific details that he was recruited into the Secret Service by John E. Wilkie in 1898 [sic]. I expect he will continue to say this in promotional appearances, so I now feel compelled to a write a different kind of post to help clear the air about where this whole spy idea came from and why people like Meltzer continue to perpetuate it. I really hope this doesn't offend people I respect, but it's time I say here what I've been saying in private when this topic arises, so here it goes.
It is true that Houdini was friendly with law enforcement and took a great interest in the methods and practises of criminals and con-men. He even penned a book on the subject in 1906 called The Right Way To Do Wrong. It's also true that he had a relationship with Superintendent William Melville of Scotland Yard, who did operate an early version of British Intelligence (formal intelligence agencies as we know them did not exist at this time). Houdini might have written to Melville about what he was seeing in Germany and Russia during his early European tours. Houdini was a habitual letter writer, a gossip, and a bit of a G-man at heart, so it was in his character to do this. So, technically, this would classify him as a "spy." I'm willing to go that far.
However, the hard evidence for even a casual correspondence with Melville is paper thin. What authors Kalush and Sloman uncovered was a single vague mention of a letter written by someone with the initials "HH" that was important enough to show to the Ministry of Defense. That's it. That's the entire factual foundation of the Houdini spy theory and industry.
Now, I don't know the authors hearts and minds, but I do know that the economics of writing non-fiction are not great (it's one of the reasons I've yet to produce a Houdini book myself). A sale to Hollywood is pretty much the only way a non-fiction work makes money for the author and publisher. So tickling Hollywood's buying bone can become a corrupting influence. There can be pressure to showcase a sensationalistic and cinematic angle, and turning Houdini into 007 certainly fit that bill, even if the facts were not really there to support it
So it's possible the authors felt compelled to enhanced the spy angle using broad speculation (sometimes informed, sometimes not) and generate scenarios in which Houdini interfaces with famous figures in intelligence, like Wilkie. Upon publication, most Houdini buffs largely rejected the spy theory as unfounded, and felt it undermined what should have been a great new Houdini biography. At the time, the authors said more evidence would come forward. It never did. But in 2009, the book sold to Summit Entertainment and a franchise of movies featuring Houdini as "part Indiana Jones and part Sherlock Holmes" were announced (they've yet to appear). So the publisher achieved their economic goal, but the Houdini world was left with a gigantic new piece of mythology to contend with.
Okay, I should stop here and say that I know and greatly respect Secret Life author Bill Kalush, as does everyone in the magic world. With his Conjuring Arts Research Center and Ask Alexander online archive, he has done extraordinary things for magic history and researchers. My own conspiracy theory is that he was led down this path by his writing partner and publisher Simon & Schuster. I also have a mad dream that one day Bill will write a wholly fact-based Houdini biography for a specialty magic publisher like Mike Caveney's Magic Words. If he did, I have no doubt it could be the finest and most accurate Houdini biography of them all.
Happily, the Houdini spy theory hasn't had the same traction as other myths. Yes, Hollywood now has their teeth into it, and even the 2010 Houdini Miniseries with Adrien Brody featured Houdini doing spy work. But reviews uniformly qualified this as speculative, and even the filmmakers admitted the spy portion of the story was dramatic fiction.
But now here comes Brad Meltzer, reviving this idea in his own work which, again, I don't object to in itself. But to go on Late Night and state unblinkingly that it is "true" shows Meltzer has not done his research or facts don't matter to him. And after what he did on Decoded, I suspect it's the latter. Meltzer trades in the world of pseudo-history and "fake news" -- a conspiracy theorist historian peddling half-truths and titillation. I'm sure the goal here, once again, is to sell a book to Hollywood, and I'm sure he will.
But that doesn't mean we have to buy any of it.