I’m neither a Harry Houdini fan nor a scholar, but I’ve read several biographies on him over the past few decades (Kellock, Christopher, Silverman and Gresham come to mind, plus parts of Kalush/Sloman). And there are quite a few things I like about the particular approach Joe Posnanski, a sports writer by profession, has taken in this latest offer on the market. Let me tell you what and why in this brief review.
First, he’s trying hard not to rehash all the lore, but to tell the many myths about Houdini from the facts. For that, he sets himself on an enthusiastic journey to talk to a lot of knowledgeable magicians, both scholars and performers, some of them huge Houdini fanboys, others not so much.
So, secondly, we get to learn interesting insights and opinions from luminaries like Jim Steinmeyer, Mike Caveney, John Cox, David Copperfield, and others.
Third, the book is also, as the title promises, about the afterlife of Houdini. What makes him stand out still today? I found this an aspect worth spending time and thoughts on. However, it may appeal more to us magicians than to “normal” readers.
Fourth, Posnanski delivers a swift read and has a knack for catchy phrases and summaries that stick (like “Houdini never surrendered. That was what made him Houdini.” or “Death, ironically, gave Houdini a second life.”). He also has a great way of foreshadowing and leading you with hooks straight into the next chapter, which made me digest the entire book in only two sessions.
In terms of structure and dramatization, Posnanski decided to let us readers accompany him step by step on his quest. That’s why his attempts to contact Houdini expert Patrick Culliton (first futile, finally successful) are a recurrent theme and supposed to build some suspense. I agree with others that the book could have been done without this dramatization. And I found that Mr Culliton (whom I don’t know anything else about) comes across as a very strange and pitiable person. If this portrayal happens to be unfair and overdramatized, as claimed in the Genii Forum here and here, Mr Posnanski should be reprehended for that.
Apart from this quibble, which I cannot judge, I recommend this book for “Non-Houdinians” as a refreshing and enlightening addition to the bulk of “regular” Houdini biographies.