In this darkly fanciful take on the Houdini legend by the acclaimed author of The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008), the magician's life is recounted through the damaged memory of the fan who killed him with a punch to the stomach in 1926.
The ultimate in unreliable narrators, Martin Strauss, a magic expert, suffers from a rare condition in which his brain invents new memories to replace lost ones. According to him, Houdini actually survived the appendix-rupturing gut punch and went into hiding. Obsessed with finding "the most famous person on the planet," Strauss is stalked by nefarious sorts himself. Shadowy flashbacks to Houdini's secret alternative life as an agent for U.S. and British intelligence explain this chain of events. The novel also examines Houdini's friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle, a devout believer in spiritualism, through whom the nonbelieving Houdini—nee Ehrich Weiss, son of a rabbi—meets his match: Boston medium Margery Crandon, seductive head of a ring of spiritualists which controls the U.S. Congress. Much of the material pertaining to Houdini's rise to fame is familiar, though the way he discounts and offhandedly explains his tricks and escapes is amusing. Galloway's inventions can sometimes be a bit of a stretch, but his explorations of the relationships between truth and illusion, fiction and reality, need and conscience are stimulating and affecting. It's only too bad he feels the need to state those themes so explicitly: "There's no way to know whether anything we have seen or experienced is real or imagined"; "A memory isn't a finished product, it's a work in progress," et al.
An entertaining fictional reflection on the 20th century's most famous magician that probably shouldn't be the first book one reads on the subject.