Mrs. Houdini by Victoria Kelly

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Victoria Kelly was born in New Jersey and graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University. She received her M.Phil. in creative writing from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and went on to earn her MFA in creative writing in 2009 from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A poet herself, she quotes Irish poet William Butler Yeats in this novel’s frontispiece: “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

Everyone knows about escape artist extraordinaire Harry Houdini, but behind every great man is an even better woman, or so the adage goes. Victoria Kelly’s debut novel, Mrs. Houdini, is that glimpse behind the famous magician’s curtain. It is the story of two people, Ehrich Weiss, better known as Harry Houdini, as told through his loving, faithful wife Bess Houdini. Theirs is a passionate marriage set against the backdrop of a new era in American history. It was also a time in this country when people were exploring what happens after death, and séances with the dearly departed were celebrated.

Those who thought they knew Houdini, his magic and his obsession with the hereafter, are privy to the ups and downs of this couple throughout his meteoric rise to fame. The writer combines thorough research with energetic imagination to give her audience a fascinating tale about relationships against the setting of the Roaring ’20s. From the couple’s early struggles for success at Coney Island to the glittering palaces of Europe, where the pair became an overnight smash, and back again to America, the novel brings to life a love story that supersedes even death. Bess never forgot Harry’s promise to her that he would find a way to communicate from beyond the grave. Along the way, as Harry’s art form becomes more developed, the reader learns some of the intricacies behind a few of his best illusions.

With intriguing, realistic dialogue, such as “Money of some sort. Hidden, where no one else could find it,” the reader wonders if Harry did indeed leave Bess a hidden fortune. “He was always so paranoid, especially after that night we were burgled. Before he died, he tried to tell me something. I think it may have been about that. But he couldn’t get the words out,” Bess admitted to her sister-in-law, Gladys. Without giving away the main plot, this is just a minor part of the mind-blowing, larger-than-life secret Bess uncovers in her quest to reconnect with Harry from beyond the grave.

Fascinated with the idea of communicating between two worlds, widowed Bess visualizes messages that only her beloved husband could have left in an attempt to speak to her from the hereafter. Characters such as her sister Stella, Harry’s blind sister, Gladys, and his dear mother, Mrs. Weiss, are all crucial to the story line. The author even mentions an incident in which Harry and Bess entertain Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, who claims to be a medium in touch with the spirits. Young photographer Charles Radley, whom Bess encounters in her clues from Harry, adds the critical element of mystery to the novel. It is his surprise epilogue after Bess’ death that rounds out the story line. In the end, a fascinating plot twist is revealed.

The story flashes back and forth in time, which can be a minor stumbling block for the reader, as it is not in any obvious order of events, but the writer has important background details to tell; at its conclusion, the novel flows effortlessly. Victoria Kelly’s style is wonderfully descriptive, telling about the illusionist through his wife’s perspective that simultaneously chronicles her journey of healing. “But she never thought, in the rush of life while Harry was alive, what she would do without him, if she didn’t have children or grandchildren. She’d always assumed they’d grow old together. He was so healthy, so strong and vital, she never imagined he’d die so young.”

For many who did not know what became of Bess after the unexpected sudden death of Harry Houdini, it’s comforting to read that she did not give up on life. After his death in 1926, she tried her hand at being a businesswoman, opening a speakeasy with her sister, which failed. Bess struggled financially, eventually operating a tea room in New York City called Mrs. Harry Houdini’s Rendezvous. “At the entrance she posted a red-winged parrot named Oscar, who called, ‘Welcome, welcome’ when customers came through the door. The back of the restaurant opened onto a garden patio, the tables shaded in the summertime with lace-trimmed red and black umbrellas.” These factual details add an element of authenticity to the novel.

This well-composed tale of love and loss will have the reader turning pages in anticipation to discover if Harry and Bess are ever reunited after his death. Though it is only historical fiction and Victoria Kelly admits to taking novelistic liberties with certain events, the ending seems so plausible it leaves you wondering if Harry’s greatest feat lives on even today. ■