Man From Beyond Hardcover – Aug 30 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Inspired by the complex relationship between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the celebrated author and champion of spiritualism, and Harry Houdini, the famed magician and escape artist, Brownstein's uneven first novel reimagines the consequences of the séance, held in 1922 after a chance meeting on the New Jersey shore, in which the spirit-writing Lady Doyle delivered a message from Houdini's late mother to her skeptical son. While the author does a good job of getting inside the heads of his two historical protagonists with their opposing philosophies, much of the story focuses on the admirable but less interesting 22-year-old Molly Goodman, an intrepid reporter who follows the two great men's activities. In a vivid scene, after Houdini barely escapes from a locked box under the Hudson far down river from where he was supposed to emerge, he realizes that, like Sherlock Holmes after surviving his struggle with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, everyone believes he's dead. After this delicious twist, however, the story rushes to a hasty climax involving an insufficiently developed villain. Brownstein's story collection, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W (2002), won the PEN/Hemingway Award.
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*Starred Review* Reminiscent of Gangemi's Inamorata (2004), this curious and intense first novel dramatizes the well-known debate between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini over the veracity of spiritualism and the existence of an afterlife. Doyle's surprising belief in the abilities of various spiritualists, in particular a woman named Margery, eventually brought about a rift in his friendship with Houdini, who considered all spiritualists to be mere practitioners of theatrical magic. Woven into this historical frame story is the fictional saga of Molly Goodman, a young New York reporter who sets out to interview both men and winds up forced to confront some decidedly personal issues. Brownstein's ability to create both taut suspense and wry comedy gives her novel a double-edged vitality, as her characters are confronted by the inexplicable, whether in the form of a pseudopod peeking out of Margery's skirts or Houdini disappearing, perhaps forever, beneath the murky waters of the Hudson River. This brilliant time capsule offers an enticing portrait of the 1920s and delivers a timely message for today's world. ?A shivery delight. Jennifer Baker
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The Man From Beyond can be a rather confusing read for those familiar with the actual events and people that form the backdrop to this entirely fictional story. To emphasize the fictional nature of the tale Brownstein has made some strange alterations: Doyle has two children named Timothy and Joanna, the medium Margery is here renamed Mary Twist instead of Mina Crandon, her husband is named Dr. Hugo Sabatier instead of Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, psychic investigator J. Malcolm Bird becomes Dingwall Bird and is given some odd experiments as a sideline, and so on... To complicate matters further Houdini did in fact investigate Margery, but not until 1924-1925, and at no time did he and Conan Doyle attend her séance together. However, there are some wonderful real incidents effectively covered in the book including a faithful account of the Lady Jean automatic writing incident and Conan Doyle's stunt-showing of The Lost World footage at a meeting of the The Society of American Magicians. While Brownstein takes Houdini and Conan Doyle down some rather strange paths during the course of the novel, he is remarkably successful in creating very credible and authentic portraits of each man.
Bottom line: A largely appealing read that unfortunately works best as a character study of Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini rather than as a cohesive fantasy thriller. While time, place, characters and certain events are vividly recreated, the fantastical mystery elements and Molly Goodman thread sideline the strengths leading to an ultimately unsatisfying conclusion.
Molly starts off as a cosmetology reporter ("it's sort of a science," her editor explains to her), but ends up with a job that's very twenty-first century. She's the "personalities" reporter, reporting on celebrities in an era before there really were celebrities.
In her era, of course, Molly can't follow around brainless starlets, lip-synching nonentities or superannuated child actors. She has to report on celebrities from the past, and in that, Molly is more fortunate than those who have followed her into the profession.
First there is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Here, Conan Doyle is close to the end of his string, mourning the loss of his son in the Great War and fully enthralled in the clutches of that new religion, Spiritualism.
His friend Harry Houdini is deeply into middle age here, but can still amaze with his dexterity, particularly when it comes to handcuffs and the tools of the escapist trade. Sadly, Houdini may be less known than Conan Doyle nowadays. Outside of the admiring mention he gets in Michael Chabon's THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY, you might not have heard his name in the last ten years.
In THE MAN FROM BEYOND, Houdini has branched out into movies (the book shares its title with one of Houdini's silent films) and is into debunking the myth of Spiritualism. As Conan Doyle is the great scientific defender of Spiritualism, completely convinced of its tenets, this puts him into direct conflict with Houdini --- and this conflict is what drives THE MAN FROM BEYOND.
The scenes in the book where Conan Doyle matches wits with Houdini --- at séances and "spiritual writing" sessions --- are the heart of the tale. Houdini has too much respect --- real or feigned --- for Conan Doyle to take him on directly, and so he fights back against him in the press. This is where Molly Goodman comes in, as both Conan Doyle and Houdini use her to talk to each other in much the same way that children who aren't talking to each other utilize their parents.
There's a grand aura of mystery around both Houdini and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Brownstein is wise not to disturb that too much. Instead, he concentrates on the character of Molly Goodman, celebrity reporter, and brings us into her interior life. Unfortunately there isn't anything truly compelling or interesting about Molly, especially compared to Houdini and Conan Doyle. Even her (impressively) stereotypical Jewish parents are more interesting, more alive in some ways, than Molly manages to be. Her actions, reporting, and even sexual experiences seem to be in the passive voice; things happen to her instead of the other way around.
Nevertheless, THE MAN FROM BEYOND is a good read, and the conflict between Conan Doyle and Houdini is still an important one. Brownstein does an admirable job of bringing the period in between the wars back to vivid life. But there's a reason why people read about celebrities and not about celebrity reporters.
--- Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds, who writes movie reviews at TXreviews.com.
The middle-aged Harry Houdini, is not the nimble magic man of his younger years, his body now showing the marks of the rough ropes and heavy chains that bound him, his belly rounded with age, but with the thick thighs of a wrestler: "the magician's greatest trick is to appear ordinary." In contrast, Doyle considers himself "a connoisseur of the supernatural, a public proponent of the scientific study of psychological phenomena, a predictor of the... religious unification under empirically determined metaphysical principles". Doyle has recently come to Atlantic City to investigate the experiment with radio waves, signals received from as far away as Pittsburg. He thinks wireless broadcasting has a profound connection to Spiritualism, although society at large has yet to take Sir Arthur seriously on this matter.
Houdini currently claims to be the great debunker of spiritual frauds; for that reason, Doyle is drawn to the magician, appreciating that Houdini deeply respects his religious convictions, called only to expose the trickery of spiritualists who make their fortunes on the desperation of believers. By happenstance, at the beach at Atlantic City with Houdini and their respective families, Doyle makes the acquaintance of the infamous Margery and her spouse, Dr. Hugo Sabatier. Margery is renowned for her séances, where a "pseudopod", an ectoplasmic arm emerges from her body, an extraordinary limb capable of writing messages and generally wreaking havoc in communication with the spirit world. Doyle is a member of The Society for Psychological Research, in good company, with the likes of Sigmund Freud, William James and Alfred Russell Wallace.
Molly is the interested observer in the conflict between Houdini and Sir Arthur, with Margery at the center of the debate, Sabatier lurking on the sidelines. Zealously protected by her husband, Margery remains an enigma, as what began as a fascinating quest into a popular movement becomes a scandal, with accusations of murder and criminal fraud. Brownstein breathes life into his characters, especially the charismatic Houdini, a man on the downside of fame, reaching for one more bow in the spotlight; Doyle is equally as fascinating, the stolid, moral man so enamored of the Movement, blinded by his own fierce beliefs and Margery's duplicitous machinations. The drama unfolds while Molly muddles through her own personal life, the impressionistic reporter a witness to the more seedy aspects of a lucrative endeavor in a gullible world. Molly's diligence pays off, revealing the true natures of these amazing men and the mysterious medium. Brownstein has crafted a spellbinding and richly atmospheric novel, his protagonists charmingly flawed, players in an era where the scientific and the spiritual coexist, magic in the mind of the beholder. Luan Gaines/2005.
While the two men argue the merits of Margery and Lady Doyle, twenty-two years old newspaper reporter Molly Goodman follows them in hope of a scoop. However, the debate seems over before she obtains anything meaty. While doing a magic trick Houdini fails to surface from a locked box dropped in the Hudson River; he actually frees himself but much further upstream, but everyone assumes he is dead. How he plans to reappear in Manhattan and what he will do next needs to decided as he is not finished with the spiritualist.
THE MAN FROM BEYOND is a fantastic historical fictionalized account of the age of spiritualism as predominantly seen through the eyes and camera) of the twenty something reporter but also based on real life debates between Doyle the believer and Houdini the skeptic. Readers will feel they are sitting in on a séance hosted by Margery, who's an intriguing character as she predicts future events instead of communicating between loved ones from the other side. Though a villain adds suspense, historical fans will wonder why bother as this terrific 1920s tale robustly stands on its spiritual underpinnings.
It is post-war New York, on the cusp of the roaring twenties, and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini are engaged in an antagonistic friendship of sorts. Conan Doyle is a Spiritualist (and indeed, readers of Mary Roach's Spook will find some familiar content here), who seeks to rectify science with the supernatural and is a firm believer in the ability of spirits to commune with the living from the afterlife. Houdini, on the other hand, decries seances and the like as the work of charlatans and frauds, and has made it his pastime to investigate and ultimately defame purported mystics. The two have formed an unlikely truce based on a mutual respect, until the famous medium known only as "Margery" invites them to a seance to contact the spirit of Houdini's deceased mother with the hopes of making him a believer.
Enter Molly, fresh out of college with a job as a reporter for a new tabloid, "maybe-lesbian," and the daughter of famous Golden Ghetto Jewish Communists. She begins investigating the Doyle-Houdini debate, which becomes increasingly antagonistic before culminating in intrigue, scandal, and murder. Meanwhile, Molly grapples with her identity as a "modern woman" in pre-Suffrage New York, her romantic entanglements (which Brownstein handles with humor and candor, with no unnecessary fluff), and her own beliefs in the face of the recent death of her beloved brother, Carl. Brownstien's characters are sympathetic, and Molly's fictional story holds up equally well with the historical celebrities.
Doyle and Houdini are each rendered with strong, believable characterizations, and Molly is a likeable, down-to-earth heroine. Brownstein's prose is evocative and surprisingly elegant for what could easily have been a ham-and-cheese delivery. The Man From Beyond was a page turner with brains; fast-paced enough to be a good beach read, but so well-written that one could easily take their time.