British author Christopher Sandford has made a name for himself with celebrity biographies of Kurt Cobain, Steve McQueen, Roman Polanski, and many others. His latest effort seems a major departure: an examination of the oft-contentious and overall peculiar friendship between two of the early 20th century’s most beloved luminaries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.
“It wasn’t really an abrupt or even conscious decision to suddenly clamber up the evolutionary ladder from the likes of Sting, David Bowie, etc., to Conan Doyle and Houdini,” said Sandford, who will be at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley) on Monday, December 5. Sandford studied history at Cambridge, has published articles on historical subjects throughout his career, and seems to have the balancing of these two areas of professional interest down to a well-scheduled science. “All the time I was writing about Conan Doyle and Houdini, I was simultaneously doing another book on my old friends the Rolling Stones. Mondays and Tuesdays were the Stones, Thursdays and Fridays were Spiritualism, and Wednesdays I tried to reserve for making the mental adjustment between the two, while also attending to more immediate matters like mowing the yard and taking the trash out.”
Masters of Mystery serves as dual biography of the Sherlock Holmes creator and the pioneering illusionist, and as a survey of the wildly popular Spiritualist movement of the time. But its main focus is the relationship between Houdini and Conan Doyle: the similarities in their psychological profiles; their increasing fascination with séances, psychic photography, ectoplasm, and the like; and how their positions on such things — Conan Doyle as evangelist and Houdini as myth-busting skeptic (excepting when his sense of showmanship could be served otherwise) — played out over the course of decades.
Sandford first became interested in these celebs of yore as a young man at St. Aubyns, “a Hogwarts-like boarding school I was incarcerated at many years ago on the windswept south coast of England.” One of his teachers there gave him a collection of Sherlock Holmes titles that, just the day before we spoke, Sandford had read aloud from to his son’s class, “which proves, if nothing else, that a well-made book really does stand the test of time.” The other teacher was “something of a Dickensian, mildly terrifying character by today’s standards, but was also fired by a deep love of English literature in all aspects, as well as of stagecraft in general and Houdini specifically.”(Sandford himself has a flair for the dramatic, with a florid vocabulary that makes good and proper use of such wonderful words as “imputation,” “legerdemain,” and the Shakespearean “incarnadine.”)
Conan Doyle and Houdini were an odd couple indeed — the former large, imposing, and overwhelmingly English, the latter a compactly built, brash, first-generation Hungarian-American Jew — yet both captured the Western imagination with their art and ideas. The friction between their differing beliefs on what, at the time, was a vastly popular, quasi-religious movement sweeping the US and Europe calls to mind an early-20th century Mulder and Scully, without all that confusing sexual tension. Sandford doesn’t necessarily find an obvious equivalent of their relationship in today’s celebiverse, but, “having just written the Rolling Stones story,” he said, “comparing the core Doyle-Houdini relationship to the Jagger-Richards one might be going too far, but not perhaps going entirely in the wrong direction. Both couples increasingly sniped — or still snipe — at each other in public, but both, it seems to me, are bound to the other by a sort of exasperated fondness and even love.” 7 p.m., free. 510-525-7777 or BooksInc.net