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Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini Hardcover – Bargain Price, November 22, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


“Absorbing and prodigiously researched… Houdini's and Conan Doyle's life stories, together and separately, have been told before, but Masters of Mystery is a worthy addition to the long shelf of existing work about these remarkable men.”—Seattle Times
“Veteran celebrity biographer Sandford brings together two fierce yet mutually respectful antagonists on the subject of spiritualism…A fascinating account of an unlikely relationship.”—Kirkus Reviews

"Rivetingly chronicles the eternal persistence of humbug, chicanery and that inextinguishable human trait we call 'hope.'"—Arthur Magida, author of The Nazi Séance

“A must read…  a fascinating insight into Houdini’s daily life and his unique relationship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle… provided a great amount of new relevant historical facts and details that have been heretofore hidden from Houdini followers… Sandford’s reverse engineering of Houdini’s thought process makes the reader feel they are in the company of the Houdini and his contemporaries… I couldn’t put the book down.” Geno Munari, President, Houdini Picture Corporation, Houdini, Houdini Magic.

About the Author

Christopher Sandford has published acclaimed biographies of Kurt Cobain, Steve McQueen, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen and Roman Polanski. He has worked as a film and music writer and reviewer for over twenty years, and frequently contributes to newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Rolling Stone has called him "the pre-eminent author in his field today." Sandford divides his time between Seattle and London.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (November 22, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0230619509
  • ASIN: B008W30IAO
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,345,164 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By John Cox on November 22, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Full confession. In my 35 years of obsessive Houdini research, I've always found his anti-spiritualism crusade to be the least interesting aspect of his life and career. In fact, I've sometimes felt I've had to slog though these sections in biographies. But all this has changed with 'Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini' by Christopher Sandford, which had me riveted to every page!

This is actually the third major non-fiction book written about the curious relationship between these two famous men. While full props must go out to these earlier books, I do feel like Sandford has synthesized all previous research with his own new findings and formidable skills as a biographer to create the best book yet written on the subject of Houdini and spiritualism, and maybe the most skillfully written book about Houdini in general since Ken Silverman's 'Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss.'

For all of Houdini's efforts to portray himself as a man of letters, it really wasn't until this book that I finally saw that man clearly. Houdini was a man of action (and reaction) to be sure, but Sandford shows he put more thought into these actions then he is generally given credit for. In other words, he really was a smart as he said he was! This is because Sandford has gained access to some key Houdini diaries (as well as some "unpublished writings" of Bernard Ernst, Houdini lawyer and close friend) that offer a counterpoint to what was going on between the two men in their letters and in public. There was what Houdini said to the papers; there was what he said to Doyle in letters; and then there are his own beliefs and private feelings that are sometimes very different.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 7, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This highly enjoyable parallel biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini was written by Christopher Sandford, a critic and author of numerous books on musicians, actors, and other modern celebrities. Its entirely appropriate that Sandford should write about two men who have been dead for seventy to eighty years, because Conan Doyle and Houdini were pre-eminent celebrities of their own time.

Masters of Mystery is not a true parallel biography of the two men because it focusses primarily on their period of friendship mixed with rivalry and sometimes antagonism. There is some attention paid to the two men's early lives, primarily to accentuate the numerous similarities between them. But the true focus of the book is on the two men's very different experiences with spiritualism and the occult.

Houdini had occasionally dabbled in seances and other occult entertainments during the early part of his career, before he developed the skills and aplomb that made him a successful magician and escape artist. His experiences with the fake mediums and con artists who took advantage of the curious and the griefstricken turned him solidly against spiritualism, and he spent much of his later life working to debunk it all. Conan Doyle's successful literary career made him financially secure and allowed him to explore a long standing interest in the paranormal. He became a passionate proponent of spiritualism during World War I, especially after the death of his own son Kingsley, and spent years advocating for even the most dubious of mediums and claims,most notoriously the Cottingley Fairies.

Houdini and Conan Doyle had met years earlier and had become good friends, even though they had categorically different ideas on spiritualism.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By JoLynn on January 10, 2012
Format: Hardcover
A meticulous study of the relationship between master illusionist Harry Houdini and the remarkable Arthur Conan Doyle, best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Both men shared a tremendous interest in Spiritualism, spending many years and much of their fortunes on trying to contact those who had passed on to the next world. However, as time passed, their paths turned sharply in different directions, with Houdini bent on debunking fake spiritualists and Conan Doyle determined to support and spread the word of these same people.

I found it fascinating and a little sad that Conan Doyle, a doctor, prolific writer and obviously brilliant man seemed so sold on Spiritualism and its practioners, even when faced with evidence of fraud. Conan Doyle suffered several family losses during World War I, including his son and his brother. It would be interesting to read more about the relationship between World War I and all of the families it tore apart and the rise of the Spiritualism movement.

The author presents many examples of false spiritualists, ranging from the comic to the truly sordid. This also piqued my interest in reading more about the Spiritualism phenomenon. A worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in Houdini, Conan Doyle, and/or the Spiritualism movement of the early twentieth century.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Battleship on September 21, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Masters of Mystery is an excellent book covering the long relationship between Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. Doyle was not only a brilliant writer, he also maintained a keen interest in spiritualism. Doyle lost many relatives by tragic means. He had a quest to communicate with his loved ones in the great beyond. Doyle developed an interest in mediums, seances, channelings, ghost sightings, and other occultic phenomena. This interest monopolized his time as he got older. It became an obsession with him.

Houdini was originally a friend of Doyle's. He was a master of sleight-of-hand trickery. He spent a lot of time and effort in coming up with ways to fool the perceptions of the masses. Houdini felt as if spiritualism was mostly humbug. He believed that most manifestations of the spiritual world were fraudelent. Houdini felt it his duty to engage in some myth-bunking. He would expose the charlatans and question whether other manifestations could be explained by natural phenomena.

The account is comprehensive and well-written. It focuses on the tense evolution of the relationship between Doyle and Houdini. The two continued to be formally affable, but the relationship began to sour as the two had public correspondences that revealed the difference of opinion about spiritualism. There was a rupture in the friendship, but the two still formally proclaimed civility and affection in public. Their actions belied their words as Doyle was more determined to defend manifestations as genuine while Houdini sought to debunk the phenomena that Doyle held dear to his heart.

Masters of Mystery is a long, detailed account. Some may lose patience with the lead up to key events. I found the reading to be very worthwhile. The book maintained my interest as I learned more about two major historical figures from the era. I am also interested in the debate over how much of the manifestations were genuine. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
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