Veteran celebrity biographer Sandford (Polanski, 2008, etc.) brings together two fierce yet mutually respectful antagonists on the subject of spiritualism.
The title is doubly misleading. The friendship between the most popular author and the greatest illusionist of their time occupies only the middle third of this volume, and the friendship was never all that friendly. The two famous figures, Sandford concedes, enjoyed “a love-hate relationship…that eventually tilted toward the latter” after only two years in their eventful lives. Doyle’s deepening interest in communicating with the dead, which Sandford traces back to at least 1887, the year A Study in Scarlet first appeared, blossomed into firm belief after his son’s death of influenza in 1916. Houdini, who described himself to Doyle as “a skeptic, but a seeker after the truth” in a letter he wrote Doyle soon after their correspondence began in 1920, had meanwhile set up shop as a world-class debunker of bogus mediums and their claims to channel astral voices and paranormal phenomena. It was inevitable that the two men—each prodigiously ambitious, persistent and self-confident—should have been drawn to each other. But not even a 1922 séance—in which the two were joined by Doyle’s wife, who under their eyes produced 15 pages of automatic writing she claimed to have been inspired by Houdini’s late mother—could convince the skeptic. Instead, his dissent from belief in the miracle led to the rupture of a relationship that had been fragile at best.
More a double portrait than an account of a friendship, but a fascinating account of an unlikely relationship framed in a good deal of lightly sourced dual biography.