According to The Washington Times, Brad Meltzer’s recently released novel The Escape Artist is his “best book in years.” In it, a military artist and a mortician unravel a grand conspiracy that leads back to Harry Houdini. Now, there’s no harm in fictionalizing the lives of celebrities, especially in a world where Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter exists, but Meltzer apparently believes Houdini was, in fact, an actual spy, recruited into the Secret Service by his friend, John E. Wilkie.
Meltzer made the claim on Late Night with Seth Meyers, arguing that Houdini’s celebrity status and escape artist skills would allow him access to all kinds of intel-rich locations he could infiltrate for the Secret Service. The novelist’s claims have attracted the ire of John Cox, the man behind Houdini-themed blog, Wild About Harry, who, as you can imagine, takes his Houdini stuff very seriously.
Cox comes out swinging, pointing out that the last time Meltzer touched on Houdini’s life in his show Decoded, the writer made the “preposterous” and “offensive” claim that the famed escapologist was murdered by his wife for reasons of petty jealousy. He then goes on to elaborate on the origins of the “myth” that Houdini worked as a spy, claiming that the notion stems from a 2006 biography by the name of The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman.
Cox admits that Houdini had a friendship of sorts with Superintendent William Melville of Scotland Yard and that the two did regularly exchange letters which may have mentioned happenings in Germany and Russia. Houdini, he argues, was a “habitual letter writer, a gossip and a bit of a G-man at heart, so it was in his character to do this.”
The only real evidence for Houdini as a quote-unquote “spy”, however, is a single vague mention of a letter, written by someone using the initials HH, that warranted being shown to the Ministry of Defense. As for any other evidence pointing to Houdini being a spy? There is none, according to Cox, and claims to the contrary are made more in the interest of attracting attention from movie studios than unearthing the truth of the man’s life.
Cox does stress his respect for the authors behind The Secret Life, but holds Meltzer in somewhat lower regard:
“Meltzer trades in the world of pseudo-history and ‘fake news,'” he writes, “a conspiracy theorist historian peddling half-truths and titillation. I’m sure the goal here, once again, is to sell a book to Hollywood, and I’m sure he will.”
You can read the full, highly-detailed takedown on Cox’s Wild About Harry blog here.