The friendship turned ugly between Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini is the stuff of legend. Christopher Standford does an admirable job of bringing the legend to life in his 2011 book Masters of Mystery.
The escape artist and the creator of Sherlock Holmes knew each other for about six and a half years, a relationship cut short by Houdini’s death in 1926. They corresponded often and met several times. Conan Doyle, a committed Spiritualist, famously insisted that Houdini’s amazing escapes and illusions were accomplished by supernatural means. The American always denied it.
If ACD comes off as naïve and at times a bit paranoid, Houdini seems duplicitous. At first, the two men jousted cordially about the occult as Houdini presented himself as open to the possibility of communication with the death while debunking individual mediums. His private diary, however, often reflected a harsher view than he shared with Conan Doyle.
One gets that impression that Houdini, at heart insecure despite his professional bombast, wanted to keep the friendship of perhaps the most famous writer in the world as a kind of credential.
In 1924, however, he took the gloves off, saying publicly that Conan Doyle “is misleading the public and his teachings are a menace to sanity and health.” He even accused him of plagiarizing Edgar Allen Poe in the creation of Sherlock Holmes! Even the gentlemanly Sir Arthur understandably took umbrage.
Masters of Mystery is as much a double character sketch as it is a biographical history. In the end, Sandford observes, the two protagonists of the book turned out to have a lot in common:
“Neither cared to admit he might ever be wrong; neither had any intention of retiring quietly; and both were determined to keep up the fight to their dying day, and did so.”