This one has been an albatross around my neck. I borrowed a digital version from the online library ages ago and read what I felt was a significant amount before it was due and then I remember to renew it. Every time I turn the pages of my TBR list to see what I can knock off, I pause next to The Witch of Lime Street and try to get the oomph to check it out again. Every time I have failed.
Not this time.
The Witch on Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World has it all. It’s got ghosts. It’s got the glitz of the Jazz Age. It’s got Harry Houdini playing detective. It’s got evil supervillain levels of weird old “science.” It’s got deception and intrigue and a hefty cash prize on the line.
And yet, it’s really kind of boring.
Part of this is due to the structure. We don’t meet the titular witch of Lime Street until roughly halfway through the book. Jaher uses all the pages that come before it as a chance to give context on Houdini, on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a contest designed to prove once and for all whether ghosts were real, and on spiritualism itself (much like in The Apparitionists, this particular movement was spurred by war, this time WWI). All of this was important context, yes. But it seemed to go on for just. so. long.
The sections are separated by years, with lots of little chapters in between. Usually, I find having lots of wee lil chapters helps me fly through books, but in this case, I just got frustrated at having read, say, five chapters and only advancing three percent. This is an exaggeration, but not a large one.
There were parts where things did feel like they moved faster. The sections in which Houdini and the witch, Margery, are playing their game of illusionary cat and mouse were very interesting. And I did find myself intrigued as to whether Margery would be able to fool The Great Houdini with her tricks, and how she managed to pull them off, but at the end, the story petered out. Which makes sense—it is real life, after all, and real life is stubbornly resistant to narrative beats. There’s often no big showdown between our two leads in real life; things are more likely to dissolve or fester over years than come to a spectacular head. And I did appreciate Jaher’s resistance to shoehorning in some grand dramatic ending.
Also, without The Witch on Lime Street, I’m not sure I would have ever found out that Houdini died in a really weird, kind of stupid way. And I am definitely bringing that up as a fun fact in conversation.
I will admit that I might have been biased against this from the first. I did have a frustrating experience with it earlier. But I feel like I gave it a fair shake, and that I was eager to prove my earlier apathy toward it wrong. It just never happened. I never could find the enthusiasm for this book that ghosts and Houdini and high-stakes deception led me to expect.