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 Using previously unpublished material on the murky relationship between Houdini and Conan Doyle, this sometimes macabre, sometimes comic tale tells the fascinating story of the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.” Sandford divides his time between Seattle and London.
In 1920, Harry Houdini, famed illusionist, met Arthur Conan Doyle, famed creator of Sherlock Holmes. The two became friends even as their complex views on spiritualism and the paranormal often put them on opposite sides of the Skeptic/Fortean coin. Christopher Sandford, biographer of Keith Richards, Kurt Cobain, and Roman Polanski, is the author of a new book about these two amazing and enigmatic men, titled “Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.” I started the book over the weekend and it’s a lively tale not just about Conan Doyle’s and Houdini’s challenging and creative lives, but also an engrossing study of the culture of magic, the occult, and hokum in the early 20th century. From The Seattle Times:
Houdini desperately wanted to believe. He especially longed to contact his late, beloved mother.
At the same time, as a seasoned illusionist, he knew all the tricks that phony psychics used. Houdini thus spent much of his career debunking séances, traveling the world and vigorously revealing how they were faked.
In contrast to this love/hate stance was Conan Doyle, whose attitude toward the paranormal was strictly love and no hate. Conan Doyle’s interest in the paranormal was lifelong, but it intensified after the death of his brother and eldest son in World War I. His lack of skepticism convinced him that every loopy theory, from faked photos of “fairies” to brazenly false psychics, was real. This was despite having created a detective whose coolly rational brain and unerring eye made him the ultimate logic machine.
Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, acclaimed pop culture biographer Christopher Sandfordtells the story of the pair’s unique friendship, sometimes macabre, sometimes comic, and fundamentally human, underpinned by their shared longing for lost loved ones and their adventures in the world of Spiritualism — at the time, a world with unmatched popular allure.
“Full confession. In my 35 years of obsessive Houdini research, I’ve always found his anti-spiritualism crusade to be the least interesting aspect of his life and career. In fact, I’ve sometimes felt I’ve had to slog though these sections in biographies. But all this has changed with ‘Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini’ by Christopher Sandford, which had me riveted to every page!
This is actually the third major non-fiction book written about the curious relationship between these two famous men. While full props must go out to these earlier books, I do feel like Sandford has synthesized all previous research with his own new findings and formidable skills as a biographer to create the best book yet written on the subject of Houdini and spiritualism, and maybe the most skillfully written book about Houdini in general since Ken Silverman’s ‘Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss.’
For all of Houdini’s efforts to portray himself as a man of letters, it really wasn’t until this book that I finally saw that man clearly. Houdini was a man of action (and reaction) to be sure, but Sandford shows he put more thought into these actions then he is generally given credit for. In other words, he really was a smart as he said he was! This is because Sandford has gained access to some key Houdini diaries (as well as some “unpublished writings” of Bernard Ernst, Houdini lawyer and close friend) that offer a counterpoint to what was going on between the two men in their letters and in public. There was what Houdini said to the papers; there was what he said to Doyle in letters; and then there are his own beliefs and private feelings that are sometimes very different.
While there are no real bombshells in ‘Masters of Mystery’, there are a several things that I found revelatory. My jaw hit the floor as early as page 3 when Sandford says Houdini, at age 11, attended a “series of séances” in a failed attempt to contact his dead half-brother Hermann. Also, at age 18, Houdini sold his watch to pay for a “professional psychic reunion” with his recently deceased father. Forget the death of his mother in 1913, certainly the seeds of Houdini’s hostility toward mediums can be at last partially attributed to these early disappointments in his youth.
The narrative is pretty evenly split between the two men, relating their respective biographies in equal measures (maybe a little more weighted to Doyle in the first third). Of course, I came for Houdini, but I found the Doyle material just as fascinating, and sometimes downright shocking! I had no idea just how far off the rails Doyle went near the end of his life, firmly believing his prophetic spirit guide, Pheneas, that the end of the world was imminent and preaching preparedness to his followers. One thing Sandford never really addresses is why Lady Doyle, as the voice of Pheneas, perpetuated this fiction for her husband. (At times Pheneas would implore Doyle to buy new home furnishings or kitchen appliances.) It really is a strange, strange story.
One quick note: this is the same book that was released under the title ‘Houdini and Conan Doyle’ in the UK last month. For some reason they went with a new title in the U.S. ”