Friday, May 18, 2012

37. The Man who Killed Houdini by Don Bell

Don Bell was a chronicler of Montreal and a bookseller.  He had a regular column, I believe, for a while in a weekly and he wrote "Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory" which is a collection of short stories capturing places and people in Montreal back in the 60s.  He is also my mother's cousin, part of the big Belitzky clan that came over at the turn of the century (the one before the last one) with the rest of the Jewish diaspora from eastern Europe.  Their stories and myths that I heard as a child were a lot of the reason I was so drawn to Montreal and ended up moving here.

The Man who Killed Houdini was his last book and published posthumously by the valuable Vehicule Press.  I have had it since its launch, started it but got kind of bogged down in the middle.  The premise is excellent.  Houdini was killed in Montreal, after a performance at McGill, punched in the stomach by a student.  Most people know this story, but as Bell discovered, the actual information on the incident and the participants is very scarce.  He set out to find out who was the man who delivered the punch and what happened to him.

As others have said, it does tend to meander in the middle. Bell takes us on the exhaustive journey he took trying to track down anyone who had any connection with the incident and the people.  At times, it gets so far afield from the original quest that the reader feels a bit lost and not so interested.  But I'm glad I stuck with it, because he pulls it back again and though there is no definitive solution, you learn a lot about what actually happened and the man who did actually kill Harry Houdini.  It's a fascinating and real story of the complexities of human existence and reality.  J. Gordon Whitehead was his name and he ended up dying of malnutrition living on his own in a downtown apartment where he had allowed nobody else to enter for decades.  Yet he had started off as an athletic, intelligent and interested person.  What had happened to him?  How did his life end up this way?  Was it connected to Houdini's death?

The journey of research and exploration also tells another story, that of the strands of immigration and human history connected to the english speaking community in Montreal.  It's a rich tapestry and justifies the meandering in the middle chapters.  This is the kind of book that may make you think twice about the weird old neighbour that freaked you out as a child.  Who was he as a young man and what was his story?

1 comment:

meezly said...

glad to hear you finally got around to finishing this!