Archive for October 5, 2021

Houdini Dunnit

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on October 5, 2021 by dcairns

I recall a nice anecdote — almost certainly untrue — in Master of Villainy, Cay Van Ash & Elizabeth Sax Rohmer’s biography of ESR’s famous father, who was also the father of Fu Manchu. It has the air of a family legend, and, as with the story of how Buster Keaton got his nickname, there is no such things as a family legend that cannot be improved by the insertion of Harry Houdini.

The story goes that celebrated racist Sax Rohmer got himself into a bind with one of his serialised stories — the plot refused to come to a resolution. He padded out episodes, inventing delaying tactics, but could not solve his own riddle. An agonising moment occurred when he realised that, several episodes back, he had been within inches of a satisfactory answer, but for a single line of dialogue from a minor character that made that denouement impossible — and that conversation had already been published.

Rohmer was roaming the streets of London, in a perfect frenzy of depression and stress, when who should he bump into but his old chum, Harry Houdini, the handcuff king. HH noticed how unhappy SR seemed, and invited him to unburden himself. But surely even Houdini, master of escapology and the impossible getaway, couldn’t turn his talents to a fictional problem?

“I have the answer!” declared Harry, when Rohmer had told his tale. “Bring back that character, and invent a reason why he lied.”

This definitely didn’t happen: the details about what book/serial we’re dealing with are suspiciously scanty. And the story would be un burger de rien if not for the inclusion of the famous escape artist. I may have some minor details wrong: perhaps Rohmer was in New York, rather than Houdini being in London. Unfortunately I don’t own a copy of this book, because I recall vaguely some other amusing stuff about HH, no doubt equally fictitious, concerning things he could do on the streets of the metropolis, using his powers of illusion — but I can’t remember what they were. But perhaps someone out there does?