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The Confabulist is a story of a man who is said to have killed Harry Houdini, twice no less. There is a saga or legend about Houdini being punched unexpectedly in the abdomen, the blow so severe it may have ruptured his appendix. In real life, such a set of blows to his abdomen did occur and Houdini did eventually die of acute appendicitis but the protagonist of the book is not listed as the guilty party.
Galloway’s tale intertwines the lives of Harry Houdini and Martin Strauss, a nondescript, average citizen whose love story is part of the book’s tapestry.
Houdini’s story here is based on real life anecdotes and known historical events. He did travel to Europe escaping from jails, straitjackets and handcuffs while being closely monitored and studied by the police of various European capitals. He did travel to Russia, performing for the Romanovs, the rulers of the country. The Russian facets of the story has some validity though it is somewhat tainted by writer’s license. No where does history or newspaper stories corroborate that Houdini was involved in espionage.
Houdini was a big name in Vaudeville at the time of WW I but acting as a spy…a stretch.
Strauss, the other leading character of the book seems to come out of nowhere, sounds like a none descript and seems less than vital to the story. He is the protagonist who punches Houdini near the beginning of the story evidently killing him with the said burst appendicitis. Strauss’ story continues with Strauss being hospitalized for some kind of memory/mental disorder which plagues him intermittently through the years in which the book is set.
The numerous espionage plots woven into the story are plausible as the story’s setting is during the days of World War I and the decade thereafter. It was a time when the United States was trying to avoid entry into the war and was working hard to keep Russia in it. Germany fighting a two front war, no matter how weak the Russian one might be, meant the Americans could still maintain their neutrality and not engage in actual combat. According to Galloway, Houdini was the espionage conduit between the Russian and the American governments. Fact is that Houdini did visit the various European countries and Russia as Galloway writes, but no one has ever confirmed that he was doing espionage for the Americans.
The book lagged
When Galloway reveals how Houdini’s tricks were performed, explaining the inner works of handcuffs and door locks, the book lags. These intricacies and explanations do not enhance the story at all, though a magician or a technologically minded reader might find interest there.
The story also can be criticized for the convoluted and puzzling line of the narrative, bouncing from Strauss’s romance, to his hospitalization and an explanation of his memory malady. This might appeal to the medically minded, few others.
The book interests
The story is more interesting when it deals with Houdini’s escapades and efforts at exposing the fraudulent practices of the Spiritualists of the era. As much as Houdini longed to contact his departed mother on the other side, he never believed it was really possible and he undertook a lifelong effort to expose the spiritualists of the time as charlatans and frauds who faked their séances only to exploit the gullible, the desperate or the depressed. Some executives in the American government, well known congressmen and senators, were believers and bought into the charlatans’ fakery. Houdini felt it was wrong for government policy to be swayed by such frauds and so he worked diligently to expose them as fakes. Galloway suggests that these government bigwigs may have plotted to kill Houdini in order to protect the lucrative trade of spiritualism. Were they on the take? Galloway never says, never suggests it. Disappointingly, the reader never really learns about the story behind the story in this regard.
Houdini according to Galloway lived an immoral life dotted with frequent infidelity. To Galloway’s credit, he does not really dwell on that aspect of Houdini’s life.
The final word
The book is short and an easy read. It is arguably entertaining but not enough to warrant the high praise which it seems to have garnered on many best read/seller lists. The author is credited with having written other books which have received high praise, but in my view this book does not deserve the same.
I would not read it again and I have am not certain I would read another book written by Steven Galloway. Rather than being a polished and excellent writer, he is a very good but developing one. He needs to polish and hone his craft more. I think he needs to examine his works to see if they flow like a stream or trickling brook. This book does not; it is more like small eddies disrupting the stream in its smooth flow. Strauss, Houdini, magic, spiritualism, espionage, all little eddies in the stream of The Confabulist. But this book’s story does demonstrate real potential for excellence.