Award-winning journalist and New York Times-bestselling author Posnanski enters the world of Harry Houdini and his legions of devoted fans in an immersive work on the illusionist's impact on American culture—and why his legacy endures to this day.
Posnanski does a wonderful job bringing Houdini’s story together ... we also learn about Houdini through some of the people who have been inspired by him. It’s here where Posnanski really shines, these conversations with those whose love of magic was born when they learned of the great Houdini ... So many people whose lives were deeply and permanently impacted by the man himself. Posnanski gives us insight into them all, capturing all of it with his usual blend of gentle sentimentality and low-key sharp wit. The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini is a different sort of biography, one willing to view its subject through a prismatic lens; diligent research and first-person reportage allows for a diverse set of perspectives on Houdini ... Joe Posnanski has given us a unique look at a unique man, an iconic figure in American cultural history. In an irony that the man himself would almost certainly appreciate, even now, a century later, Houdini remains inescapable.
... a casual, idiosyncratic effort to sift through the jumbled mass of Houdiniana and separate the more established fact from the more persistent fiction. Beyond that, it is an attempt— intentional or not—to defend the fiction. Posnanski’s dreamy reverence for the brotherhood of magicians and their code, such as either exists, is one kind of rationalization; his romanticization of tall tales and folklore as entertainment is another ... Joe Posnanski’s book transcends its subject. The Life and Afterlife shows that Houdini’s career and his enduring legacy are not just the work of a single entertainer with a yearning for fame. They require a constant audience, an organic promotional machine that consists of those who are willing to accept and repeat the folklore unchallenged as well as those who are willing to let it slide—celebrate it, even—in the name of showmanship. If there is indeed something a little suspect about Houdini’s disregard for the truth, can’t the same be said of us when we justify printing the myth?
While the book itself is perfectly, if narrowly, delightful, I hope that its particular genre doesn’t catch on ... a biography, after a fashion, although a sketchy one ... I don’t think you can question the general thesis, but I seriously doubt that Houdini’s legacy is quite as pervasive as Posnanski makes it out to be. He states, in one passage, that you simply can’t be ambivalent about Houdini. I am entirely pleased to be ambivalent about him ... does two things very effectively. First, it lets Posnanski tell Houdini stories, which usually turn out to be interesting or fun ... Posnanski takes a great deal of glee in relating the best stories --- and debunking the worst ones --- and his excitement is infectious. Secondly, he lets his interview subjects dunk on Houdini from time to time --- pointing out that he wasn’t a great card or technical magician ... As for the rest of the book, while it’s technically fine, it doesn’t quite capture the imagination ... If you’re even vaguely interested in Houdini, Posnanski’s book is a great deal of fun and does a lot to separate the myths from the facts. But if you’re primarily interested in a biography qua biography, the long divergent stretches where the author talks to Houdini obsessives will either strike you as engaging, in which case you’re fine, or annoying bordering on grating, in which case you’re probably in the market for a different Houdini biography.