cover image The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

Joe Posnanski. Avid Reader, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5011-3723-5

Legendary escape artist Harry Houdini used showmanship, bombast, and a bit of fraud to concoct magic that still inspires, according to this starry-eyed biography. Sports Illustrated columnist Posnanski (The Soul of Baseball) gives a brisk, episodic recap of the Hungarian-American magician’s rise to vaudeville’s summit by escaping handcuffs and straitjackets (sometimes in mid-air) and underwater traps as audiences agonized in suspense. Posnanski doesn’t reveal much Houdini methodology, but he does note the element of humbug: some of the seemingly impossible challenges he accepted were probably setups with confederates, and his signature upside down escape from a sealed, water-filled “Chinese Water-Torture Cell” was accomplished by lowering a curtain and having an assistant let him out. Houdini’s real genius, in Posnanski’s telling, was for publicity—his greatest PR agents were the many police departments that obligingly let him test himself against their restraints with reporters on hand—and romantic grandstanding. Posnanski intertwines the biography with profiles of present-day magicians and aficionados who acknowledge his mediocre magical chops but still revere him; these sections often drag, with their subjects coming off as skillful but gray magical technicians beside Houdini’s larger-than-life flimflammer. When Posnanski stays focused on Houdini, he gives readers an entertaining study on the power of a charismatic personality to conjure captivating illusions. Photos. (Oct.)