Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini meet in New York and set about plumbing the depths of spiritualism, while an intrepid reporter sniffs around for the truth.
The second novel from Brownstein (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W, 2002) features earnest debates on the afterlife and the thrumming energy of Manhattan in full Prohibition bloom. Set in the spring of 1922, it concerns the relationship between old friends Doyle and Houdini. The normally scientific Doyle has become a believer in spiritualism, something that Houdini has made it his mission to debunk. This low-key conflict between the men is brought to the fore by Doyle’s championing of famous (and heart-stoppingly beautiful) medium Margery and the attempts of hard-driving reporter Molly Goodman, who tries her best to get the scoop on what Doyle and Houdini are bickering about. The twined stories of the Doyle-Houdini debate and Molly’s investigation of same don’t quite come to a satisfying conclusion—indeed, Molly’s idealistically conflicted inner life is ultimately more engaging than much of the fanciful plot. But the author does have a knack for coloring pages with odd detail, as in his description of Molly’s living arrangement: “Molly rented a room in a Greenwich Village walk-up on Gay Street, where the last of the neighborhood Negroes lived. The bathroom was in the hall, and there was a painter, Pignoli, who used the tub to wash his terrier, Goldman.” Mindful of the charlatanism of the séances and spirit photographs that dominated the spiritualist fad of the time, he is careful not to let the book become overly cynical and even leaves open the chance that Margery could be an actual visionary (it’s just that her visions are not of departed relatives but of calamitous historical events soon to come)
The writing is good, but there’s quite a lot that doesn’t come together.