Revised: December 23, 2001
Rohmer's biography, Master of Villainy,
an entire chapter, "Houdini to the Rescue," is devoted to the tale of how
Houdini helped Sax Rohmer "finish the story he had already given up as
impossible" (134). Much of the chapter is based on Rohmer's own first-hand account as
given in one of his "Pipe Dreams" -- articles in
which he reminisced about his work and his life. They were published in the Empire
News, Manchester, England. (Some were later reprinted in The
Rohmer Review.) The March 27, 1938 installment was titled "Were Houdini's Feats Supernatural" and in it Rohmer
expresses his great admiration for Harry Houdini, explaining how they became friends and
relating numerous anecdotes about some of the experiences they shared over the
As the title indicates, Rohmer wanted to address the question of Houdini actually using the supernatural. Rohmer notes that after Houdini's death, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and others firmly believed that Houdini "employed supernatural powers in some of his illusions." Doyle went on to condemn Houdini for discrediting the supernatural feats claimed by others when he was secretly using the supernatural in his "act." Defending his friend, Rohmer observed that "whilst I discredit entirely the supernatural theory held by Sir Arthur , I am by no means convinced that the means employed were not super-normal." Rohmer maintained that Houdini was simply a superior athlete who had employed unique training methods. Their disagreement actually caused a rift in the friendship of Rohmer and Doyle.
Perhaps the most interesting story related by Rohmer in his Houdini "Pipe Dream" is that of Houdini's role in the writing of Fire-Tongue -- the later basis for the "Houdini to the Rescue" chapter in Master of Villainy. While at home on Bruton Street in Mayfair, Rohmer tells his readers that he began work on "a mystery story" commisioned by the American magazine, Collier's. Rohmer then offered a description of how he worked to illustrate how he approached the Collier's assignment:
Rohmer used this method to write the opening chapters of Fire-Tongue: Having met Paul Harley briefly in India, Sir Charles Abingdon calls on him for help. Sir Charles is clearly afraid for his life but offers scant information. Instead, he invites Harley to dine with him and promises to explain the basis of his fear during the meal. He dies right after the soup. In the third chapter, Sir Charles' physician and friend, Dr. McMurdoch, concludes, "My certificate will be 'syncope due to unusual excitement'; and I shall stand by it," Harley's job is to prove it wasn't a heart attack, but a murder.
The next day he began work on an entirely different story but used the same protagonist, Paul Harley. Over the course of a month, he completed the 80,000 word manuscript for Bat Wing. At this point he was confident that all was well; Collier's wanted a "mystery story" and he had a complete story in hand. Rohmer sent a cable to his agent in New York to inform him that Bat Wing was complete. The agent's reply was completely unexpected:
The editors at Collier's did everything they could think of to help Rohmer write. Joseph Coll had again been asked to illustrate the story and Rohmer found Coll's original drawings decorating his hotel room. And despite Prohibition, the room had been supplied with a small bar. A dictaphone and a typewriter were also in place. Having read and re-read the opening, Rohmer tells us the problem:
It was at this point that his friend Houdini appeared. Insisting that Rohmer couldn't stay in the hotel room for days on end, Houdini forced Rohmer to leave the hotel to relax and get away from it all. He introduced him to people he knew, had parties for him, and even had him for Thanksgiving dinner, an occassion on which Rohmer tells us he wore "a tweed suit over pyjamas, for he would take no refusal." Meanwhile, Rohmer was no closer to a solution--until, he tells us, Houdini came "to the rescue."
As told by Rohmer in "Pipe Dreams" and retold in Master of Villainy, this is a wonderful story. But who was the character who had been "dropped out" and what was "the single line of dialogue in Chapter Three"? Chapter Two concludes with the death of Sir Charles:
Chapter Three is comprised entirely of Paul Harley's coversion with Dr. McMurdoch, the family physician who concluded, "My certificate will be 'syncope due to unusual excitement'; and I shall stand by it." He later appears in Chapters Six, Seven and Eight and is then "dropped out." A close reading of Chapter Three reveals no line of dialogue that prevents a solution to the murder or makes the murder impossible and Dr. McMurdoch is never brought back to admit a lie.
If the line of dialogue is not there, what of Rohmer's claim that there were no clues in the first two chapters? There are, in fact, a number of clues. In Chapter Two, Harley goes to Dr. McMurdoch's home for dinner. Upon arriving, he is told that the doctor has been called to see a patient, "Mr. Chester Wilson on the other side of the square." In his absence, Benson, the butler, admits Harley to the dining room. While Harley is waiting, Mrs. Howett, the housekeeper, enters the dining room and, encouraged by Harley, goes on at length about the "new parlourmaid."
Russian playwright Anton Chekov's first rule of drama was that if an author included a gun over the mantelpiece in Act 1, he had better be sure that it was used by the end of Act 3. If Rohmer uses two pages of dialogue to tell us the parlourmaid was doing something with the things on the table, there is a strong likelihood this will be of use or significance later in the story. A second clue is revealed when, Sir Charles returns and tells Harley that no one from the Wilson household called.
And finally, just pages before Sir Charles death, we are again directed to take note of the parlourmaid.
But how was it done? In the sentence immediately preceding the onset of symptoms, we are told of the last thing Sir Charles did.
Sir Charles is dead within paragraphs, having uttered his cryptic last words: "Fire-Tongue . . . Nicole Brinn." To be sure, Rohmer masterfully throws in much misdirection, but one is hard put to believe that following this murder scene he would believe the mystery he had created "was not susceptible of solution."
Why then would Rohmer have claimed "Then, having introduced my investigator, by name Paul Harley, I assumed his duties and looked about for clues pointing to a criminal. I could find none"? The answer may be the same as why he gave various accounts of how he got his name or how he created the character of Fu Manchu. The "Pipe Dreams" were casual non-fiction, embellished to make a good story. In this case, the entire piece was about Houdini, now dead ten years, and Rohmer may simply have embellished the story. Houdini was doubtless there, for the parties, the theater trips, and Thanksgiving, but it is not likely at all that he that he found a line of dialogue that solved the problem as described.
Seven years before the "Pipe Dreams" article was published, Rohmer gave an interview to Carl Warton of the Boston Sunday Herald. In an article titled "Houdini Saved the Day for Sax Rohmer" (March 8, 1961), Warton relates a totally different version of the story. Once again, Rohmer's technique is explained:
John Harwood, who first reported this article in "Houdini To The Rescue" in The Rohmer Review #4 (March 1970), notes that "Rohmer was behind in the story because he had started it with no idea of how it was going to conclude." Rohmer had already revealed that the parlourmaid switched the serviettes while Sir Charles was off to Chester Wilson's home following the false call by the villain, Ormûz Khân. In this version of the Houdini tale, Rohmer had all the plot elements but could not figure out how to end the story. Harwood relates this alternate version of events.
This version is more credible than the "Pipe Dreams" version. The story does, indeed, conclude with a five chapter statement to the police in which Nicole Brinn relates what happened in India seven years earlier. But it is not unexpected that he would do so in one form or another. Brinn has spent the entire story maintaining his silence. As early as Chapter Four, "Introducing Mr. Nicole Brinn," he tells Harley something happened to him seven years earlier in India but he can't talk about it. He later tells him "There isn't any one I would rather confide in," but "I must ask you again to be patient. Give me time to think--to make plans."
It is simply inevitable that Brinn eventually tell someone what happened in India. Once the reader knows of the mysterious and frightening events in India, their anticipated revelation is a perfect device to keep the attention of readers of a serial. The novel ends with Brinn finally relating what happened. That Brinn makes his final statement to the police rather than Harley is also quite logical as it allows the reader to see that he has turned himself in and justified Detective Inspecor Wessex's trust in him. This is hardly an unusual literary device, and it is not likely that Rohmer needed Houdini to come up with it.
John Harwood also noted that Rohmer had given a third version of the writing of Fire-Tongue to another reporter, H. Allen Smith:
So what really happened? It's not likely we will ever know, but it is safe to assume that Rohmer dropped writing Fire-Tongue in favor of Bat Wing. There is evidence that his idea for Bat Wing was clear by virtue of his claim to have written it in a month. It is also quite likely that his American agent, oblivious to the switch to Bat Wing, did, indeed, sell the story to Collier's, and that Rohmer rushed to New York and worked feverishly to complete it. As he tells us, "The printers began to catch up on me. At one point I reached a stage where I was turning out copy page by page from my apartment to a team of messengers connecting with the printing press!"
In the midst of all this pressure, his friend, Harry Houdini who was then living in New York made every effort to get Rohmer to go out, to meet people and to relax. They very likely discussed the story, but given Rohmer's talent and previous successes, it is not likely that Houdini made any great literary contribution. This is not to say his real contribution, helping Rohmer stay sane in the midst of the daily pressure to produce copy, was not real and significant. It is clear that Rohmer was deeply appreciative. Perhaps less clear is that over time that appreciation was expressed with a little embellishment.
By 1950, Rohmer was telling the editors of Blue Book Magazine that "Houdini credited Rohmer for having developed one or two of his tricks, and Rohmer gave Houdini the credit for having presented him with a solution to two or three of his own mystery stories when he couldn't find the murderer or a rational explanation for the crime himself."
At the end of his "Pipe Dream," Sax Rohmer says of Harry Houdini:
That much we can be sure of.
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