Imagine an enticing mystery story with Harry Houdini at his medium-busting best, phony clairvoyants (a redundancy if there ever was one), a naive Arthur Conan Doyle, intrigue, steamy affairs and tainted money changing hands. All of these subjects are covered nicely in this complex, non-fiction tale of Houdini exposing Margery Crandon, a self-proclaimed psychic nicknamed the Witch of Lime Street. It’s also about the dissolution of the friendship between Houdini and Sherlock Holmes author Doyle over the existence of the supernatural.
Houdini (born Erik Weisz) vociferously disliked “mediums” and their contrived dog and pony shows. He would attend their séances and debunk them, sometimes afterwards and sometimes in the middle of a séance, while the medium was pretending to talk to dead people. His reputation was so fearsome to these charlatans he was barred entrance to most gatherings and eventually had to infiltrate in disguise.
Enter the magazine Scientific American, who actually sponsored a contest for anyone who could prove spiritualism actually existed. Houdini was one of the judges. The most promising contestant was a Boston housewife called Margery. She would speak with the voice of her dead brother, regaling guests with anecdotes from his life, as well as endless opinions, poems and other witty repartee. Her biggest defender was Doyle, who was 100% devoted to belief in mediums and spiritualism.
Houdini squared off against Margery many times, and she and her team were prepared for him. Moreover, even though he not only explained her tricks but also demonstrated how she accomplished them, she still had her unshakeable supporters. The once-strong friendship between Houdini and Doyle ended up fraying and breaking, partly because of Margery but overall because of Doyle’s unwavering devotion to spiritualism contrasting with Houdini’s skepticism. The book tackles the battle royale between Houdini and Margery, the relationship between him and Doyle, and the eventual fates of all the main characters.
The Witch of Lime Street draws well not only its characters; but also the allure of spiritualism in 1920s America. It’s a riveting read.
Rating: **** stars out of 5