This novel conflates the story of the fictional character, Martin Strauss, with that of the famous magician and escapist, Harry Houdini. As the novel begins, Strauss is diagnosed with a rare disease that causes his real memories to disappear and be replaced by manufactured memories. He decides that he has to write down what he can remember before his memory fails so he can give it to Alice Weiss, Houdini's natural daughter. He visits with her a few times every year and has never told her the whole story of what happened between Houdini and himself.
Chapters transfer back and forth between Martin's story and various events in the life of Houdini. Houdini's rough start is eased after John Wilkie, the head of the Secret Service, contacts him and asks him to gather information in England and Europe. Houdini builds his career as an escape artist and becomes one of the best-known persons in the world. In the process, Houdini makes a number of enemies. His life is always in danger.
Martin's life is one of bad choices. In 1926, Martin is a college student. A friend obtains tickets to see Houdini perform. Martin escorts his girlfriend Clara to the show. Afterward he punches Houdini in a bar. A week later, Houdini is dead and Martin knows he is to blame. He abandons the woman he loves and starts a life of itinerant wandering, unable to come to terms with his guilt over both deeds.
Incidents in Houdini's life relate to his involvement in international spying. (Some of this is factual, but Galloway gives it fictional amplification.) He is invited to perform in Russia for the royal family, where he meets an aristocrat named Grigoriev, Russia's spymaster. The first two decades of the 20th century were buzzing with plots and political undercurrents that led to World War I. Performing magicians had many skills that made them ideal spies. Houdini gathered and passed along information, all the while hiding his espionage from his wife Bess.
Martin's wanderings take him to New York City, where he discovers he's being followed. An assailant catches him and tries to force him to hand over a small book that turned up in Martin's pocket after he punched Houdini. Martin manages to escape and goes on the run again. The little book is written in code and is an admirable McGuffin (the object of a chase). He eventually figures out the code and translates the contents of the book. It has a surprise ending that triggers the culmination of the novel.
Martin's ambivalence and confusion make a powerful contrast to Harry Houdini, whose convoluted life demands constant vigilance against numerous adversaries. Galloway makes good use of factual material from Houdini's life – the escapes, tricks, transcontinental performances, infidelities, covert spying, and his rampage against spiritualism. This last element of Houdini's life is certainly true, and he did, in fact, conduct a crusade to debunk fraudulent mediums. Galloway inserts it as a clever plot point and twists it to his own use. Houdini's elaborate machinations make Martin Strauss look ever more the fumbling fool, yet at the end of the book, Strauss acts with courage. Of course, it's hard to tell if that part of the story really happened since Martin's memory isn't reliable.
This is a fun book to read. Martin and Houdini's intersections drive the plot forward. The characters, some real and some fictional, gain gravity as the narration proceeds and the reader is drawn more deeply into Galloway's tricky double time-loop. This novel is a bit of a espionage-thriller, a bit biography, a bit of a magician's how-to manual, and a bit of a plausible fantasy woven out of Martin's memories. This book will intrigue people fascinated with Houdini. Recommended.
~review by Elizabeth Hazel
Author: Steven Galloway
Riverhead Books (Penguin) 2014
301 pg, $27.95 hb