Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini by Cynthia von Buhler

Review published on August 11, 2018.

For fans of the graphic crime novel who like something a little unusual, a bit off the wall. I’m rapidly being converted to the originality of the graphic novel and this thrilling and intriguing tale has deepened my understanding of the form. Once I began reading I was hooked.

It’s no surprise to learn that Cynthia von Buhler is a performance artist, because this novel not only has a theatrical theme but is staged as a performance for the delectation of the audience. A dark fantasy about one of the great showmen of the twentieth century – Harry Houdini, the escapologist. A name familiar to generations born long after he died, a mysterious and intriguing character. His fame meant that his death caused genuine shock and grief around the world. Houdini was the subject of much speculation both during his life and after his death – a character writ larger than life. So it’s fitting that Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini is a bold and extravagant graphic novel. A tale of murder and revenge that weaves fantasy into fact to dazzling effect.

Was Houdini murdered? If he was, who did it? Was there a conspiracy to silence a man who had made many enemies over the years? That is the territory von Buhler’s speculative fiction explores. The writing and the artwork have that retro vibe, but the themes have a subtle contemporary feel. This is a graphic novel with modern sensibilities and Minky Woodcock is a feisty, no nonsense hero.

This is the 1920s and Minky Woodcock is frustrated by the world of men and defined roles for the sexes. It stifles her opportunities to be who she wants and to do what she wants with her career. Even her own father won’t take her seriously, not even when she demonstrates her ability. The only role Minky gets in the family private investigation business is as a secretary, but she is sure she could be an operative. This is even more unfair because her brother is an investigator and all he wants to do is dance. Then an opportunity arises as her father is away for a few weeks and her brother is off rehearsing for a show. Minky takes advantage of their absence to take on a case – a big case. None other than the renowned creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, walks into the office asking to see her father, they’ve had dealings in the past. Doyle is put out that Minky is the only person available to listen but eventually begins to tell her his story. He used to be friends with the escapologist Harry Houdini but the pair have fallen out over Houdini’s debunking of spiritualism. Doyle wants to find out what Houdini is up to and whether he has plans for further attacks in the future on what has become a cause for Doyle. Minky takes the case, pretending it’s on behalf of her brother. Resourceful and pretty, it must be said, she gets herself hired as Houdini’s assistant as he tours with his latest water tank show. Minky not only gets an education in escapology but in debunking fraudulent spiritualists and Houdini really has upset a lot of people. A shady cast of characters emerge as a genuine threat to the maestro. Minky is torn between her duty to her case spying on Houdini and her growing affection for the man and the need to protect him from his enemies.

Von Buhler’s murder mystery draws on the mystical and fantastic, on dreams and known facts surrounding the death of the great Houdini in 1926 to stunning effect. The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini is a fun tale of evil plotting and conspiracy theory, with darkly drawn villains, fraudulent séances, poisoning, seduction and inevitable tragedy – Houdini gets it in the end! Was Houdini murdered? You decide if his enemies conspired against him. Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini is a sharp take on what might have been. Von Buhler cleverly manipulates the spat between Conan Doyle and Houdini as well as the two men’s contrary fascination with spiritualism.

The great strength of the novel is its art work; beautiful and sexy, and at times bordering on the surreal. Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini is a visual feast. The images are always striking and wonderfully inventive. I think the plan is to stage this as a cabaret later in the year and I can imagine it will be something to see.

Paul Burke 4/4

Minky Woodcock the Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini by Cynthia von Buhler
Titan Comics 9781785863974 hbk Jul 2018

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