Tuesday, January 25, 2022

REVIEW: The Zanetti Mystery by Harry Houdini

Last month Joe Notaro of HHCE released Houdini's long forgotten novella, The Zanetti Mystery. The first publication of this work in its complete form is a significant moment in Houdini history. But what about the book itself? Is it any good?

Houdini's fiction tend to be parables or melodramas that are very much products of their time. Even the stories ghostwritten by greats like H.P. Lovecraft are clearly written for a target audience looking for simple action and thrills. They all work well enough. But as with Houdini's movies, you're never in any real danger of becoming lost in a work of Houdini fiction.

Having said that, I actually found myself becoming lost in The Zanetti Mystery! My biggest surprise on reading this novel is that it's actually pretty good. The basic plot, about a medium named Zanetti who lands a whale of client who offers him one million dollars to conjure his dead wife in the flesh, holds up today. (It also bares a striking similarity to William Lindsay Gresham's bestseller, Nightmare Alley. Gresham would go to pen a biography of Houdini. Could The Zanetti Mystery have been his secret inspiration?)

Written at the height of his crusade against fraudulent medium, Houdini's purpose in creating this story was to further educate the public in the practices of such frauds. So a lot of the story is a peek behind the curtain at the mechanics of spiritualistic graft. This is all very entertaining. The characters who work with Zanetti in and outside his seance room have an almost Runyonesque quality. There's even an interesting sidebar about a Broadway casting agent who provides showgirls for questionable jobs and clients. It all feels authentic and offers a real romp through the underworld of 1920s New York.

The protagonist of the story, Wallace Haines, an assistant District Attorney, is a bit insufferable. Happily, Lucile Linton emerges as the true hero and carries the bulk of our sympathies. Zanetti is a largely aloof villain, a Moriarty the seance room, initiating schemes and sending minions to do his bidding. While ghostwritten, Houdini's sensibilities permeate the story. He even slyly works in a reference to himself. But its Houdini's willingness to let his characters (and his ghostwriter) express themselves without constraints that allows The Zanettii Mystery to bloom. There's even room for continued tales, and one wonders if Houdini was considering a Zanetti series. 

The biggest disappointment about The Zanettii Mystery is that it is clearly unfinished. The final chapter, which greatly expands the story and raises the stakes for our heroine, reads more like an outline. It's an abrupt change of narrative form and a rush to the conclusion. I suspect what we are reading is closer to the basic outline Houdini would provide to his ghostwriter to flesh out, and for some reason that didn't happen. So while this provides some insight into how Houdini crafted his tales and will be of interest to students of Houdini, it may be a let down to readers.

The Zanettii Mystery is a must for all Houdini fans as it is now his last published book and belongs on the shelf alongside his other work. And those who decide to actually read the book might find themselves pleasantly surprised that, in the end, Houdini finally produced a work of fiction that has a life of its own.

Purchase The Zanetti Mystery by Houdini at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

No comments:

Post a Comment