The Magician and the Spirits: Harry Houdini and the Curious Pastime of Communicating with the Dead by Deborah Noyes (review)
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Noyes, Deborah The Magician and the Spirits: Harry Houdini and the Curious Pastime of Communicating with the Dead. Viking, 2017 [160p] illus. with photographs
Trade ed. ISBN 978-0-8037-4018-1 $18.99
E-book ed. ISBN 978-1-101-61689-5 $10.99
Reviewed from galleys R Gr. 6–9

Magician and escape artist Harry Houdini is best remembered for the combination of deft misdirection and physical endurance that wowed the crowd, but he never claimed to possess powers beyond a keenly developed skill set and athleticism. Priding himself on being a world-class showman, he was ever alert to the flaws in competitors’ performances, and during the resurgence of interest in spiritualism [End Page 463] that reached a peak in the years following World War I’s carnage, Houdini was particularly resentful of charlatans who bilked grieving survivors at private séances and public displays. Here Noyes focuses on Houdini’s avocation as spiritualism investigator, whose personal grief at his beloved mother’s passing made him long for a channel of communication but whose logic and reason led him to disprove the claims of every medium he encountered. Paying particular attention to the investigative efforts of the respected Society for Psychical Research, Noyes sets Houdini’s activities within the context of the early twentieth century, when scientific marvels and social progressivism made the improbable seem possible and drew in prominent figures from Arthur Conan Doyle and William James as believers, or at least want-to-believers. Packed with photographs and sidebars, this is a fast-moving presentation that manages to be both respectful of persons often considered gullible in retrospect while firmly siding with Houdini in his conclusion that spiritualism has not proved its case. Source notes, a bibliography, and index will be included in the bound book.

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