Mrs Houdini by Victoria Kelley

My Great Uncle, Harry Klauber and his wife, Jacques Marchais, were friends of the Houdinis and some of the seances which attempted to contact Harry were conducted at the Klauber estate (now torn down) on the borough of Staten Island. Knowing this I have always been curious about this infamous magician and was attracted to a book featuring his wife, Bess.

Victoria Kelley interweaves fact and fiction in her novel, Mrs Houdini. Researching various biographies, some rare and out of print, she was able to reconstruct and even replicate various conversations and events from the past, manipulating them in a way to give substance to her imaginary resolution to Houdini’s promise to communicate with his wife from beyond the grave. Focusing on Bess Rahner, who at eighteen had left home and begun a life entertaining in Coney Island, the young girl meets the mesmerizing Harry, born Ehrich Weiss, and finds herself married and on the Carney Circuit.

Life on the vaudeville road was tough for the young couple, but Bess became an important part of the act, at first acting as her husband’s partner on stage and then managing his career from behind the scenes throughout their 33 year marriage, supporting Harry through the ups and downs of an always uncertain career in show business. Despite his fame, the worldwide travels, and renowned people they met along the way, Harry was a shy man who only opened up when performing. At times he struggled with insecurities, but Bess was there to guide him through the tough patches. Kelley tells the tale through Bess’ point of view, going back and forth between the time after Harry’s death and the prior events of their lives together, from 1894 to 1929. I found this device a little disconcerting and would have preferred a straightforward narrative or at least one with less flashbacks and more chronology. Kelley attempted to showcase a love story while maintaining some integrity regarding the conflicts found in any relationship, but it fell a little flat. At times superficial, we never truly get into her head.

The book was full of descriptions of the various stunts and illusions performed at the numerous locations where the duo traveled plus a listing of the people who surrounded their lives, but it was often stilted, not flowing like a traditional novel. A common problem of authors who try to write fictionalized biographies is that they get bogged down in all the factual details. It would have been a more compelling novel if Kelley had selected various highlights and dwelled more on those, rounding out the facts with her imaginings. For example, one of the compelling events was the Houdini’s trip to Europe where Harry purchased a dress designed for Queen Victoria in London and then invited his mother to her home town of Budapest, holding a party in her honor where she could wear this beautiful gown. Instead of just telling us about this event, Kelly should have involved the reader in every aspect of this delightful tale, making us feel as if we were there. There was just too much telling with more than a bit of repetition. Yet, I found the basic information interesting and it gave me a different perspective of the life and times of the great magician and his wife, with an interesting fictional twist at the end.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Atria Books for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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