The best historical fiction roots us so firmly in the facts of the era that we're willing to go along with the author's flights of literary fancy. Victoria Kelly's debut novel, "Mrs. Houdini," accomplishes this. The meticulously researched novel, based on the life of Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess, immerses us so deeply and entertainingly in its time and place that we come away from the book with the feeling of not simply having read a novel, but a biography and a history book, as well. Buoyed along on a love story wrapped in a mystery, we effortlessly pick up factual information along the way: about the couple, the time in which they lived, the people they knew, and the cultural tides of the era.
The plot covers two time periods, one that traces the development of the couple's relationship from its first moments on a Coney Island boardwalk in 1894, the other concerning Bess' efforts to make contact with Harry during the decade following his death in 1926.
After Bess encounters a series of what she perceives to be clear signs that Harry is trying to reach her from beyond, she's led to an unassuming seminary-bound photographer in Atlantic City, who finds himself unwittingly delivering some form of mysterious communication from Houdini through his pictures. Together, he and Bess unlock the mystery of this posthumous correspondence, and a fantastical story unfolds. By the time Kelly delivers this magic to us, we're so firmly invested in the characters and setting that we're willing to go along for the ride.
The novel's richly textured historical detail will have readers reaching for Wikipedia in order to determine how much of what Kelly writes is true, and to learn more about this fascinating couple. Her Author's Note shares a bit about her research process, including the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction fact of having purchased a well used copy of an out-of-print Houdini biography, only to discover Bess' signature on the inside cover.
An interest in Harry Houdini, or magic, is in no way a prerequisite for enjoying this book. "Mrs. Houdini" is a delightful read, and will resonate with anyone who's ever been struck by the illogical but nonetheless compelling notion that a lost beloved may yet reappear, despite all rational evidence to the contrary. The book answers that great "What if?" and does so in an eminently pleasurable way.
Emily H. Freeman is a writer and a teacher of writing in Missoula, Mont.