Houdini Dunnit

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?

4 Responses to “Houdini Dunnit”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Invent a reason why he lied” is very Jacques Rivette. Rivette’s “Out 1” is a massive mysterious exploration of the post May 68 atmosphere of a group of intellectuals who invented a secret society called “Le 13” (after the “deux ex machine” of Balzac’s “Histoire des 13”) with a great many characters and a series of interlocking lots that make no logical sense but retain fascination because of a mise en scene that relentlessly puts action of all sorts forward whether it “makes sense” or not. Jean-Pierre Leaud for example pays a character who’s introduced to us as a deaf-mute only two a few episodes into the series suddenly speak. Hermione Karagheuz begins as a member of one of the two acting troupes involved in the action only to orph into a key player in the plot to bring the dormant “Les 13” back to life. IOW, Anything Goes.

  2. Dudley Sutton told me he was hired to play a mute in A Town Called Bastard “the crookedest film I was ever in” only to have the dub on dialogue literally whenever his back was turned.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    A TOWN CALLED BASTARD ( the last word changed to HELL for American release so as not to offend national susceptibilities concerning profanity) was an actual mess. Last year I did manage to acquire the ITV production of UNCLE SILAS with Robert Eddison in the title role as Dudley as his wastrel son.

  4. Oh, great! I wish I’d been able to get more of Dud’s stories, but I was too busy making a film.

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