Master magician Harry Houdini has proved an endless source of fascination to writers and filmmakers. This debut novel shifts the focus to his strong-willed wife, Bess, drawing on real events but conjuring a fanciful end to their long marriage.
The two meet as young, struggling performers in Coney Island—Harry performing magic tricks, Bess singing with a female troupe. They marry and endure a hardscrabble life till Harry’s daring, ingenious stunts start to attract international attention. Intercut with the story of Harry’s rise to stardom is a second narrative tracing Bess’ adventures and misadventures after her husband’s mysterious death in 1926. Insisting that he promised, on his deathbed, to communicate with her from beyond the grave, Bess falls prey to scheming mediums claiming to relay his messages. Realizing she’s being duped, Bess begins to look elsewhere for Harry’s presence. She finds coded messages and joins forces with a young photographer who proves crucial to her quest. Unfortunately, this part of the book—which abruptly departs from the historical record—comes off as a little silly, with a Nancy Drew–like quality to it. Throughout, the period details are rich, and it’s fun to keep company with the Houdinis as they mingle with Jack London, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and other celebrities of the era. And who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall at the magicians’ salon that Bess—childless and longing for something to call her own—opens in Manhattan?
The book flirts with spiritual themes and with the idea that the divide between this life and the next may be permeable. But Houdini was, in the end, a down-to-earth kind of guy, and one can’t help but wonder what he would have made of the otherworldly turns in this sweet if not quite satisfying novel.