Mrs. Houdini: A Novel

Image of Mrs. Houdini: A Novel
Release Date: 
February 29, 2016
Atria Books
Reviewed by: 

Victoria Kelly takes license with the legacy of Harry Houdini in her debut novel. Harry Houdini was known for debunking spiritualists who sought to scam the psychologically bereft with séances and other flim-flam. He even went so far to cancel a run of shows in Boston in 1924 to appear with Scientific American journalists lest they be taken in by the much vaunted medium Mina Crandon. Readers must suspend disbelief that Harry Houdini would, upon dying, tell his wife to look for signs that he would find a way to contact her from the beyond.

Bess spends the next ten years of her life, after Harry's death, attempting to make contact with her departed husband through séances and spiritual mediums. While the real Mrs. Houdini did indeed try to reach out past death to contact her departed husband, Victoria Kelly creates a fiction in which the illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini is actually a magician of Harry Potter caliber, and there is such thing as magic, as well as a life beyond.

Though the characters are flat on the page, interchangeable, without any identifying markers or details, Bess, in general, is an empathetic character. Bess is a woman very much in love and bereft at the loss of her husband; her desire to find him again his far from laughable and her attempts are heartbreaking.

The scene setting leaves a lot to be desired, however. There is so much material Kelly could have worked with given the richness of the turn-of-the-century and the 1920s, but the author skipped over this in favor of drawn out omniscient narrative. Mrs. Houdini lacks character and plot development: it is clear Kelly has a difficult time trusting her readers to glean characters' motives by their actions or allowing her characters to act.

Chapters jump between past and Bess' present—where Harry is dead and speaking to her through coded messages beyond the grave through song lyrics and mysterious post cards, which she interprets with the assistance of a mysterious photographer—and the past when Harry was alive.

Adult readers may find this book juvenile in its prose, but it is in line for YA readers.

The Author's Note at the end fails to mention the truth about Houdini's distaste for spiritualism or how hard he worked to debunk it, despite Mrs. Houdini being a fictional account about his wife who, in real life, wanted desperately to believe in what he did not. If Kelly could have at least acknowledged the facts about Houdini's life, the fictional account she created could have been a nice ride through an alternate history. It is also unfortunate that Kelly did very little research into the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Houdini, relying instead on a single book she found at a garage sale to tell her all she needed to know to write this book.