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I was reading books about Houdini. It seemed to me one of the most exciting things about him was that, as well as being the world’s most famous illusionist, he also devoted much of his life to doing battle against “magic”.
Enraged at the thought of ordinary people being exploited, he worked ceaselessly to expose fake séances, false mediums, Spiritualist hoaxes.
With his stunts and de-bunking activities, the great Houdini sought to prove that man was master of his own fate, that no “magic” could be more powerful than what ordinary men or women could achieve with their own skills, muscles and wits.
An extraordinary quest—particularly for his times. I started wondering what could have made Houdini so driven in this way. Something in his childhood perhaps?
An idea for a series of books for middle grade readers took shape; in which a young Harry Houdini, boy investigator, would be faced with supposedly magical mysteries, and would use his emerging escapological skills to unmask the truth.
I started work on an alternative history: a series of events that didn’t happen, but which, just possibly, might have done. I knew that the real Houdini’s boyhood had been a relatively peaceful one in Appleton, Wisconsin; but I asked myself whether that could have been a “cover-up”, a carefully devised tale to conceal a far more thrilling reality?
So I placed my Harry on the Manhattan streets in 1886, shining shoes; I introduced him to two young friends, Billie and Arthur. Together, this trio find themselves getting swept up in a series of frightening mysteries; an elderly magician kidnapped by unknowable forces; the mayor of New Orleans falling victim to a daemonic curse. People are terrified, rumours of magic abound; but young Harry uses his skills to expose the truth…
And to outwit the danger that results. Generally, people create rumours of magic for sinister purposes, and the villains in my books would be no different.
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The real Houdini made powerful enemies through his determination to expose falsehood; that would be true of my boy investigator too. His enemies would try to silence him by the most deadly means possible, leading him to develop those unbelievable powers of escape.
Over and over again, he would escape to tell the tale; he and his friends would travel the world to defeat mystery. And at the end, I decided, there would be neat scene in which Harry would decide to invent his “cover story”, a convincing tale of how he grew up peacefully in Wisconsin, USA…
So: Young Houdini, investigator of mystery.
Simon Nicholson is the author of The Magician’s Fire, the first book in his Young Houdini series. Young Houdini: The Magician’s Fire is published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky in the U.S. and by OUP in the U.K. and rest of the world.