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Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A Book That's Hard to Believe

Well, I can’t say they didn’t warn me.

In their introduction to their 1992 paperback novel Believe. (the period is part of the title), authors William Shatner and Michael Tobias announce, “This novel is strictly a work of fiction. Most details that might have harbored even a shred of truth have been freely altered, embellished, imagined, or otherwise invented.”

I’ll say! This novel about Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini (one of many by a host of writers) frustrated me by the degree to which it changed such known facts as the circumstances of the wound that killed Houdini or the occasion on which the two men first met. And for no discernable plot reason!

Worst of all was this gem: “Though he once announced religion in favor of theosophy, the mature Doyle was a Roman Catholic to the core.” Huh? Even the most cursory reading of a thin biography of ACD would leave one with no doubt that the creator of Sherlock Holmes renounced the church of his family in his 20s and never looked back.

The book is, understandably, not well known. I only bought it at the Mysterious Bookshop in New York during Baker Street Irregulars Weekend because I’d seen it sitting on the same shelf every year for four years. So why am I beating this dead horse?

Because I love historical novels, including mysteries that feature historical personages. Writing partner Kieran McMullen and I wrote three Enoch Hale mystery novels populated with such characters as T.S. Eliot, Dorothy L. Sayers, Winston Churchill, Ronald R. Knox, Agatha Christie, and P.G. Wodehouse as well as Mr. Sherlock Holmes. 

And it seems to me that such books should stick to the truth as much as possible, or at least not contradict well-known biography unless the reader is told up front that this is alternative history. Not to do so creates confusion among the innocent, and frustration for those who know better.

In any case, something like the “Notes for Curious” that the great mystery writer John Dickson Carr appended to his historical mysteries – detailing where fact and fancy diverge in the novel –  are always appreciated. Otherwise, the reader is left to wonder.

Writing historical fiction is special task (of which the traditional Sherlockian pastiche is a subset). Carr did it well.  William Shatner (yes, that William Shatner) and Michael Tobias did not.


  1. Thank you for this. I'm on the Houdini side of things and I've become increasing frustrated by "Houdini fiction.” Sometimes something special comes along, like Ragtime or Carter Beats the Devil, but most of it is hastily researched and facts are bent in any direction that serves the author’s plot. And now that there are (almost) as many fictional works featuring Houdini as non-fiction works, I do worry about the confusion they cause. I don’t see these as innocent fun anymore.

  2. I enjoyed Daniel Stashower's mystery novels about Houdini, written from the point of view of his brother, Hardeen.

    1. I did as well. I especially liked the second book, The Floating Lady Murder.