Has Houdini’s fame survived into the 21st century? In his early 20th century era he was known across the globe, his vast creativity constantly devising remarkable new tricks that kept him the pre-eminent stage and street magician. Even a century later some of his feats can’t be definitively explained. Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi explain how he achieved this, bringing through the strength of his personality and how his physical skills meant no-one could devise a trap he couldn’t escape. Additionally, they convey what it must have been like to be present at one of Houdini’s performances. Novelist Glen David Gold’s place-setting introduction notes that Houdini’s escapist skill raised magic to a global phenomenon, comparing his influence to that of Michael Jordan on basketball. Anyone with an interest in stage magic can’t go wrong with Gold’s novel Carter Beats the Devil, about a later magician.

Houdini made no secret of how he achieved his miraculous feats, stressing nothing supernatural was involved. Being the world’s greatest escapist was down to hours of study and practice. He was one of the world’s foremost authorities on locks, and how to pick them, and the opening pages show him studying one, before detailing what’s presumed knowledge about one of his methods, and then showing his creativity equally applied to promotion. Really transmitting his character, Bertozzi’s Houdini is bustling, all-action, almost always on the move, and definitely always thinking, the thought balloons here containing visual representations rather than words.

Lutes cleverly sets the entire book around the single stunt of Houdini jumping chained into Boston’s Charles river. It’s a trick Houdini had performed in other American cities, and Lutes uses the preparation, the press interviews and conversations with his wife to reveal Houdini’s personality. There’s the determination, the innovation, the precision, and his lack of time for scoundrels and frauds. A special disappointment was researching his childhood hero Robert Houdin to discover that Houdin claimed credit for spectacles devised by others. When it comes to the actual stunt the creators drag the tension out superbly, switching to two simultaneous narratives, one wordless showing Houdini beneath the water, and the other the reactions of the audience.

Five pages of densely packed notes and explanations round off a thoughtful and entertaining primer about one of the greatest showmen ever.