STARRED REVIEW
November 2019

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

Review by
Hardly a typical biography, this book feels like taking an up-close-and-personal tour of the escape artist’s life, as told by author Joe Posnanski in his wonderfully entertaining prose and through the voices of a host of colorful experts he tracks down.
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The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini is hardly a typical biography; it’s more like taking an up-close-and-personal tour of the escape artist’s life, narrated not only by author Joe Posnanski in his wonderfully entertaining prose but also by a host of colorful experts whom the author tracks down.

Posnanski says he was drawn to the legendary escape artist because he “sparks so much wonder in the world, even today.” Modern magicians seem to concur that, technically speaking, Houdini wasn’t a particularly good magician. However, crowds were mesmerized by his escapes and were convinced he could do the impossible. The great actress Sarah Bernhardt was so gobsmacked that she asked if Houdini could restore her missing leg.

The truth of the matter is that Houdini was a charismatic, brilliant entertainer who was obsessed with fame. This publicity genius was ruthless against critics and competitors and could not for the life of him ignore an insult. He loved making money but wore tattered clothes, preferring to spend his money on self-promotion, magic books and paraphernalia.

Even today, Houdini “lives on because people will not let him die,” Posnanski writes. He introduces readers to a variety of Houdini’s modern disciples, such as Kristen Johnson, “Lady Houdini,” who says that after she tried her first rope escape, “she felt alive in a whole different way.” Magician David Copperfield takes Posnanski on a tour of his private museum in Las Vegas, discussing his predecessor’s influence. Australian magician Paul Cosentino admits, “I guess . . . he saved my life. Little boys like me, we need Houdini, you know? He’s a symbol of hope.” As Posnanski concludes, “Houdini is not a figure of the past. He is a living, breathing, and modern phenomenon.”

When a talented writer like Posnanski tackles a subject as endlessly fascinating as Harry Houdini, the results are, quite simply, pure magic.

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