Young Houdini: The Demon Curse

Written by Simon Nicholson
Review by Cassandra Clark

This little novel is based on the intriguing premise of Harry Houdini’s boyhood. What sort of childhood did the great escapologist have? Here is a fantasy version of the scrape he and his two companions, Arthur, the bookish English boy, and the feisty American girl, Billie, find themselves in.

We first discover them bound, gagged and trapped inside separate suitcases on a fast train to the Southern states. Harry, because this is what he’s good at, effects a miraculous escape just as they are all on the point of suffocating to death. A man in grey makes a mysterious appearance. None of the children can work out why they have been kidnapped. Soon they find themselves embroiled in a plot against the mayor of New Orleans, stricken down by a mysterious power. A glamourous but sinister woman leader appears, and a rabble-rousing politician leads placard-waving dissidents to near-anarchy outside the mayor’s office. A mad scientist is also involved, and a group of villagers, trying to protect their property, are demonised on the basis of their belief in voodoo.

How does it all hang together? Ingeniously, is the short answer. My misgivings concern writing style. Despite the opening, it is slow as the three ruminate over their fate as if not quite sure why they are here. Later it speeds up and reads like a graphic novel without the pictures. Research is needed in the boat scenes, though: oars are not placed in ‘holders’ or ‘brackets’ but in rowlocks, rain doesn’t make a boat sail, nor would crew be ‘undoing knots’ as they approached a quay. Our resident eight-year-old was confused by the goodies v. baddies plot. Perhaps 12-year-olds would have a better grip.