BOOK REVIEW / Bound to please mum: The life and many deaths of Harry Houdini - Ruth Brandon: Secker, pounds 17.99

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HARRY HOUDINI spent the best part of his 52 years boasting that he could get out of anything. Handcuffs, straitjackets, packing cases, water-filled glass boxes, absurdly large envelopes, even a buried coffin - Houdini escaped from them all. Andre Gide once said that knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the tough bit is knowing what to do once you're free. Houdini knew what to do: make money. He made lots of it.

The son of an impoverished Budapest rabbi, Houdini, or, as he then was, Erich Weiss, made his first escape at the age of two: his family, fleeing Hungarian anti-Semitism, moved to New York and then to Appleton, Wisconsin. In neither place did Rabbi Weiss ever find his feet, and by the age of 12 Erich was already the family's major breadwinner. Semi-illiterate and unskilled, all he could do was odd jobs for nickels and dimes. But the boy had chutzpah. When he came across a queue for a job cutting ties, Erich thanked everyone for their interest but announced that the job had been filled. Then he went inside and introduced himself as the only applicant. Another time, while working as a messenger boy, he penned the ditty: 'Christmas is coming / Turkeys are fat / Please drop a quarter / In the messenger boy's hat'. It was awful verse, but it had the required effect. When he arrived home that night he told his mother to shake him, claiming that he had magic powers. As she did so, coins flew everywhere. There was almost enough to pay the rent.

Impressing his mother meant a lot to Houdini. She was, as Ruth Brandon suggests, the most important person in his life. After her death he had a card printed which claimed that 'If God ever permitted an Angel to walk on the earth in human form, it was my mother.' Almost daily, he wrote gooey love letters to his wife, but their marriage was little more than a working partnership. Houdini was a mama's boy. The only strings that ever held him were those attached to her apron.

This mother/son obsession has made Houdini a sitting duck for Freudian biographers. There is plenty of other evidence, too. In his youth, his hero was the great French illusionist, Robert- Houdin (no prizes for working out whence Houdini derived his stage name). Many years later, scorned by his mentor's daughter, he wrote a childishly Oedipal book called The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin which argued that the Frenchman's famous illusions were far from original. Nor is it difficult to read Houdini's escapes from brimming milk-churns and water torture cells in Freudian terms: they were surrogate rebirthings, in which he tried to free himself from the influence of his mother. And most of the photographs we have of him, naked, muscular and enchained, look like out-takes from a bondage magazine.

Ruth Brandon makes room for this line of argument in her thoroughgoing book, but she doesn't let it dominate. She makes use of another Freud, the Freud of Thanatos and Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Her not quite convincing thesis (we are to accept that, when Houdini failed to tighten his stomach muscles in time to take the unexpected blow that led to his demise, he was willing his own end) is that Houdini was obsessed by death. His act was a highly public search for 'proof of his own immortality'.

In private he was searching for a way of talking to his dead mother. The innate scepticism of a conjuror assisted him little in this. He spent a lot of time discrediting the mediums of the day. Famously cynical, Houdini was obliged to disguise himself in order to gain admission to seances. Melodramatic as ever, once he had seen enough for a conviction he would turn on the lights, tear off his beard and give the game away.

Ruth Brandon isn't giving much away when - as the blurb has it - she explains in 'fascinating detail the secrets of Houdini's most celebrated escapes'. Houdini's methods have been readily obtainable, if not common knowledge, for a long time. Even 25 years ago, when Milbourne Christopher's Houdini: The Untold Story was published, the title was unduly florid.

But what none of his biographers has ever fully explained is how Houdini managed to pack people into a theatre night after night. After all, what had they come to see? Five minutes of a little man being chained up or nailed in, and then hour after hour of nothing as he struggled behind a curtain to release himself. (Actually, he was usually free within a few minutes: he would read the papers for an hour or two, letting the tension in the auditorium build.) In our culture of brevity and glitz, it sounds like a recipe for boredom.

Perhaps Houdini was loved because he made people feel that they need not be prisoners. Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. We are all searching for escape. Drunken binges, summer holidays, New Year resolutions - we see all these as keys to unlock the soul. Once the old self has been sloughed off we shall be free to remake and remodel. These great hopes mostly come to nothing. Houdini's came to quite a lot. He showed that it could be done. His audience was trapped in order to be shown liberation.

(Photograph omitted)