Thu
Feb 2 2012 9:30am

Magical Mystery Tour: Houdini’s Appearances

Houdini PosterI never intended to make an informal survey of the many appearances of Harry Houdini in the annals of mystery fiction. It just sort of happened that way. Quite frankly, until I began investigating the matter I didn’t realize that he was a character so beloved by mystery writers—and writers in general, even celebrity authors such as William Shatner, who “co-wrote” a book in which Houdini and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle team up to determine if there really is life after death.

For me, it all started not so long ago when I ran across Conan Doyle biographer Daniel Stashower’s The Dime Museum Murders. I’m something of a lapsed Harry Houdini fan, with my interest in his exploits peaking several decades ago. But there’s apparently a residue of fannishness left over from my childhood and so I decided to give it a whirl.

It turned out to be time well spent. Stashower has Houdini’s brother tell the tale from the vantage point of several decades into the future, well after Harry’s death. The time frame is the years just before Houdini hit it big and he’s presented as a not very likable and driven character who’s completely convinced of his own greatness. He’s not much of a detective, mind you, but he’s persistent and before it’s all said and done he and brother Dash have muddled their way to a solution to the various crimes that have taken place.

The Floating Lady MurderStashower followed this book with another two in the Harry Houdini Mystery series—The Floating Lady Murder and The Houdini Specter, both of which play out along  similar lines. His earliest foray into Houdini mysteries actually came more than a decade prior to the first of these volumes. The Adventures of the Ectoplasmic Man throws Sherlock Holmes and his ever loyal sidekick into the mix alongside the great escape artist and magician.

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes, there’s Val Andrews, who turned out more than twenty volumes chronicling the adventures of the famed detective prior to his death in 2006. The fifth of these books, Sherlock Holmes and the Houdini Birthright finds Holmes, Watson and Houdini again sharing space on the printed page. Holmes and Houdini also work together in The Pandora Plague: A Posthumous Memoir of John H. Watson, M.D., by Lee A. Matthias. It starts with the theft of a pocket-watch and winds up with the duo working to defeat a plot against the British crown.

Houdini and Nate - Danger in the DarkAfter writing Spellbinder: The Life of Harry Houdini, a biography targeted at younger readers, author Tom Lalicki  went on to write three Houdini and Nate mysteries for the same demographic. Nate is young Nathaniel G. Makeworthy Fuller, who strikes up a friendship with Houdini in the first book of the series, Danger in the Dark, and goes on to solves more crimes with him in Shots at Sea and Frame-up on the Bowery. The former finds the pair on the ocean liner Lusitania, trying to protect former president Theodore Roosevelt from an assassin, while the latter finds them trying to clear a mutual friend of a murder committed in a notoriously rough part of New York City.

In You Might As Well Die, by J.J. Murphy, Houdini is called upon by Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley to judge the authenticity of a séance, and gets drawn into helping the pair solve a murder. In real life, Houdini was an avid debunker or false spiritualists. Parker and Benchley were famous literary figures and members of the Algonquin Round Table, whose members have appeared in three books of Murphy’s series thus far.

Speaking of Murphy, there’s the Molly Murphy series of historical mysteries, by Rhys Bowen. The series numbers ten volumes thus far and in book nine the tough Irish immigrant turned detective gets caught up in solving a gruesome on-stage murder of a magician’s assistant and finds herself hired by Houdini’s wife to protect him.

In Thomas Wheeler’s The Arcanum, an all-star cast of real-life figures turn up, including Houdini, Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, and Aleister Crowley. The thriller finds these members of a secret society trying to solve a gruesome murder, which leads to more murders and a series of events fraught with supernatural overtones.

In a similar vein is What Rough Beast, by H.R. Knight, which arguably leans more toward horrific than whodunit. But it’s a work that does contain that old staple of mystery fiction, the locked room murder, and Doyle and Houdini team up yet again to attempt to solve it.

A locked room murder is also at the heart of The Fourth Door, by French mystery writer Paul Halter, considered by some to be the successor to John Dickson Carr when it comes to this subgenre of whodunit. A reincarnated Houdini may or may not actually play a part in the proceedings and thus the book is sometimes known as The Houdini Murders.

EscapadeThere’s more Houdini and yet another locked room murder at the heart of Escapade, by Walter Satterthwait. The tone is considerably lighter this time in what could rightly be called a sendup of the classic English country house murder, one which brings the popular crime-fighting duo of Houdini and Doyle together yet again.

At this point it’s probably worth noting that Doyle and Houdini were actually friends in real life, at least up to a point, though they eventually had a falling out over their views regarding spiritualism.

The pair also turn up in William Hjortsberg’s Nevermore and this time around they are caught up in the investigations of a number of bizarre murders that mimic deaths in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. In Houdini and the Séance Murders, by Christopher Farran, the tale is told from the viewpoint of Houdini’s nephew Ira. This time around Houdini and Doyle are attending a séance in Italy when a murder puts a considerable damper on the proceedings.

Marian J. A. Jackson has written five volumes of the Miss Danforth Mystery series thus far, in which she chronicles the exploits of Miss Abigail Patience Danforth, a young detective working around the turn of the twentieth century, a time when female detectives were something of a novelty. Conan Doyle is nowhere in sight in this the fifth book of the series, but Houdini and Danforth are both on board a wealthy man’s yacht on a trip from Panama to New Orleans when a murder takes place.

Last but not least we have Luminaries, by Timothy M. Brenner, a Houdini/Doyle pairing that tosses Orson Welles into the mix and gives each of them superpowers, after a fashion. Doyle has the ability to ascertain the history of an object by touching it, while Houdini is telekinetic and Welles is a telepath. This gang of heavily fictionalized superheroes teams up to track down a serial killer who has knocked off a member of the British royal family.

It’s frankly amazing that a man who made a career out of disappearing has appeared in so many mysteries!


William I. Lengeman III is a freelance journalist with a fondness for gourmet tea and traditional mysteries. He writes about the former at Tea Guy Speaks and the latter at Traditional Mysteries.

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5 comments
Rob Hansen
1. RobHansen
Perhaps worth mentioning here is the 1997 movie 'Fairy Tale: A True Story' about the famous Cottingham Fairy photos. It features Peter O'Toole as Conan Doyle and Harvey Keitel as Harry Houdini.
Laura K. Curtis
2. LauraKCurtis
I am amazed at this list. I had absolutely no idea Houdini was such a popular character.

And Rob, I had totally forgotten that movie, but I know I saw it!
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
3. tnh
Hi, Rob. Good addition.

Two more works to add to the list are Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather, both by Tim Powers. They're part mystery, part thriller, part fantasy -- call them magical realist alternate history -- and take place in the same universe as Powers' award-winning Last Call. Houdini is more a presence than a character, as he's long since dead when the story starts. Various objects associated with him are objects of power, most notably his detached hands.

Laura, I think most kids who take an interest in stage magic and escape artistry wind up being fascinated by Houdini. Some of them grow up to be writers.
Clare Toohey
4. clare2e
This is a fantastic and fascinating collection of titles. I'm a sucker for not-quite historicals, and yes, I can already hear my TBR pile groaning from upstairs
Darren Turpin
5. DarrenTurpin
Mr Houdini also features strongly in 'The Great Game' - the final instalment of Lavie Tidhar's 'The Bookman Histories'. Busy fellow, by the sounds of things, this Houdini...
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