Conan Doyle and Houdini: The Afterlife of a Friendship

By Peggy Perdue.

From The Baker Street Journal, Vol. 66, No. 3 (Autumn 2016), pp. 20 – 23.

There seems to be a sort of trickle-down effect at work in which some of the surfeit of attention paid to Holmes has been passed on to his creator. Working in the Toronto Public Library’s Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, I encounter more and more members of the general public who know who Conan Doyle was. In the past, it was more about Sherlock Holmes and Arthur . . . who? Part of this name recognition surely comes from the frequency with which Conan Doyle has made appearances on television of late. He was on Murdoch Mysteries, Mr. Selfridge, and then moved on to top billing in the series Arthur and George. Most recently, he has been paired with Harry Houdini for the British–Canadian-American drama series Houdini and Doyle.

Many people have already commented on the liberties the show takes with the facts behind the Conan Doyle–Houdini relationship. It’s set a full twenty years before the two men actually met and plays fast and loose with history from there. In this, it breaks no new ground at all. This program is only the latest in a long line of works inspired by the short-lived but fascinating connection between the famous author and the famous illusionist. Some of these stick to the facts, some have a nodding acquaintance with reality, others take significant poetic license, and many decide to make Conan Doyle disappear altogether and replace him with—presto chango!—Sherlock Holmes. Toronto’s Arthur Conan Doyle Collection has many such items.

The earliest example item we have showing a Houdini–Conan Doyle connection is a story from Aus den Geheimakten des Welt-Detektivs (Secret files of the world detective), No. 101 (22 Dec. 1908), a series of pastiches that circulated through Europe in the early 20th century. In Auf den Spuren Houdinis (On the trail of Houdini), Sherlock Holmes rescues Houdini from a group of dastardly rivals. I have a feeling that if the real Houdini had ever heard of this story, he would have been rather annoyed. After all, he literally made an art out of not needing to be rescued.

We don’t know whether Houdini and Holmes ever really met, but Conan Doyle and Houdini first encountered each other in 1920. What started out as a warm friendship chilled soon after, which was perhaps inevitable given their opposing views on the authenticity of spirit mediums. In later years their relationship was defined by a debate over the truth of Spiritualism that played out largely in the public eye. Houdini died in 1926, and since efforts to contact him via séances were never successful, Conan Doyle got the last word in the argument. Notable among ACD’s published works about Houdini is “Houdini the Enigma,” a two-part article in The Strand of August and September 1927. Conan Doyle asserted his belief that some of Houdini’s illusions were actually manifestations of spirit power. This was a far cry from the tales of adventure that were Conan Doyle’s most memorable contributions to The Strand. Perhaps The Strand would have published pretty much anything from the pen of their favorite author in the hopes that he might eventually present them with another Holmes story.

Conan Doyle died in 1930, and posterity would be left to argue the merits of the two men’s characters and beliefs. Bernard Ernst and Hereward Carrington did not waste time in coming out with their 1932 book Houdini and Conan Doyle: A Strange Friendship, a biographical treatment of the events, which reproduced many letters between the two men. A 1972 edition of this book is also available. One can also consult Final Séance: The Strange Friendship between Houdini and Conan Doyle by Massimo Polidoro (Prometheus Books, 2001) and the even more recent Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini by Christopher Sandford (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). The treatment of the subject matter varies from book to book, but everyone seems to agree that the friendship was strange. Conan Doyle did not make the title in The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher (Crown, 2015), but the Houdini–Conan Doyle relationship is at the heart of this history of Mina Crandon, the medium known as Margery.

The first major fictionalized account of the Houdini–Conan Doyle relationship appears to be Believe: A Novel of Psychic Adventure by William Shatner and Michael Tobias (Berkley, 1992). Then, after Shatner had gone where no man had gone before, a succession of novels followed: Nevermore by William Hjortsberg (St. Martin’s Press, 1994), Escapade by Walter Satterthwait (St. Martin’s Press, 1995), Other Worlds by Barbara Michaels (HarperCollins, 1999), The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler (Bantam Books, 2004), The Man from Beyond by Gabriel Brownstein (W. W. Norton, 2005), and The Confabulist by Steven Galloway (Knopf, 2014).

Most of these books offer fairly respectful, if sometimes far-fetched, interpretations of Conan Doyle and Houdini. A notable exception can be found in an opera libretto by Adrian Mitchell, Houdini: A Circus Opera. This odd piece was performed by Amsterdam’s Nederlandse Opera Stichting in 1977. Houdini makes out well as the hero, but Conan Doyle and his wife take on the roles of villainous spiritualists. A sample of the stage directions offers an idea of the tone: “[The Doyles] are revealed as skeletons which then fight Houdini. Big fight, which ends with the defeat of skeletons. The Doyles are left on stage with only their heads protruding from a pile of bones.” I’ve never seen Dutch opera; but if this is the sort of thing they get up to, it is no wonder people generally prefer the Italian variety.

A popular variant on the Conan Doyle–Houdini pairing is the Houdini and Holmes story. The earliest example was the 1908 German pastiche cited above. If you only read one Holmes and Houdini novel, it should be The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man (Morrow, 1985; Titan, 2009) by Daniel Stashower, who brings expert knowledge of Holmes, Conan Doyle, and Houdini to his fiction. If you like the genre and want more, there’s also Sherlock Holmes and Harry Houdini in the Adventure of the Pandora Plague: A Posthumous Memoir of John H. Watson, M.D. by Lee A. Matthias (Unicorn-Star Press, 1984) and Mystery of the Magician by Elizabeth Howard (Random House, 1987), in which the heroine is a Holmes fan who meets Houdini. Sherlock Holmes and the Escape Artist by Fred Thursfield (MN Publishing, 2014) features Holmes, Houdini, and Watson’s widow. Who Done Houdini?: A New Adventure of Sherlock Holmes by Raymond John (North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2015) contains fictional versions of Conan Doyle, Houdini, and Sherlock Holmes, as does Sherlock Holmes and the Houdini Birthright by Val Andrews (Breese Books, 1995).

Other storytelling formats have explored the Conan Doyle and Houdini relationship. The movie Fairytale: A True Story came out in 1997, long before Houdini and Doyle made its debut on the small screen. This film is based on Conan Doyle’s defense of the Cottingley fairy photographs. It cast Harvey Keitel in the role of Houdini, although his part in the proceedings was purely invented. Ripley's Believe It or Not cover: Houdini vs. Conan DoyleThe Holmes–Conan Doyle–Houdini trinity has also provided good fodder for comic books. “The Spirit of Friendship” in Ripley’s Believe It or Not (No. 89, July 1979) is a semi-fictional illustrated story about an encounter between Houdini and Conan Doyle. Houdini and Holmes, written and illustrated by Polly Guo in 2011, features charming artwork and is still obtainable in a digital format. A widely available recent series is Sherlock Holmes versus Harry Houdini by Anthony Del Col, Conor McCreery, and Carlos Furuzono. It can be found as a five-issue series or a trade paperback (Dynamite, 2015).

Who knows what new things will come out in response to the recent attention to their friendship? Action figures? Tea blends? We can only wait and see. For now, consider one final item in Toronto’s Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. In the notebook Conan Doyle took on his North American journey in 1922, there are a few pages on which he wrote the contact information of people he planned to see. One of the entries reads, “Houdini 278 W 113th St. NY.” These few words have a certain magic in them. The relationship between Conan Doyle and Houdini was a tempestuous one. Pop culture interpretations of that relationship have often been fanciful or bizarre. There is therefore something particularly poignant about this little entry. What could be more common than someone jotting down the address of a friend he wanted to look up on a trip? What could be more uncommon than the friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini?

From The Baker Street Journal, Vol. 66, No. 3 (Autumn 2016), pp. 20 – 23.

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