Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

In the wake of World War One, Spiritualism, a religious movement centering around contact with the dead, was on the rise.  With this came a fad for mediums who claimed to be able to channel those unquiet spirits, both for the knowledge they had and to create uncanny physical effects.  Understandably, there were many who were skeptical, but felt that these mediums should be scientifically investigated.  Just in case there was any quantifiable evidence that wasn’t fake.

The Witch of Lime StreetScientific American, the leading popular science magazine of that time, offered a cash prize to the first medium to pass rigorous scientific examination and be proved genuine.  And on that five-man jury was one man who had a reputation for spotting fakes and chicanery–the magician and master escape artist Harry Houdini.  Most candidates for the prize were easily disproven.  But then there was Mina “Margery” Crandon, wife of a respectable Boston surgeon.

Her gifts, brought to her through the spirit of her dead brother Walter, were impressive indeed.  But was she the Queen of Mediums, or simply a master of parlor magic to rival the great Houdini himself?  This is the story of their meeting and what came of it.

Told in bite-size chapters and a handful of photographs, this book starts with Arthur Conan Doyle learning of the end of WWI, and his involvement with the Spiritualists.  His tours in support of the movement helped create interest in the United States, and indirectly led to the prize competition.  He tried to recruit Houdini, but the showman was less than convinced.  As became something of a pattern, Sir Arthur took Houdini’s politeness in not calling out a fake at the time as impressed belief.

We also learn of how Mrs. Crandon became a medium, but certain aspects of her and her husband’s earlier life are kept from the reader until much later in the story.  (And some mysteries are never solved.)  It should be noted that some conversations are reconstructed from later recollections, which may be fallible.

There’s a lot of interesting material in here for those interested in the mystic lore of the period, including a cameo by Theodore Roosevelt.  But once the investigation of Margery begins, the chapters start to drag, and it feels like the author stretched this part to fill out the page count.  Those of you who are history buffs will already have figured out that Mrs. Crandon didn’t win the magazine’s prize.

There’s a list of helpful sources for further reading, and an index.  There’s quite a bit of discussion of female private parts, from whence mediums were supposed to issue ectoplasm (and, it was alleged, where fake mediums often hid props.)  That might make the book unsuitable for readers below senior high level, depending on their parents’ discretion.

Overall, this is a helpful book for the reader who wants a quick look at Harry Houdini’s investigation of mediums from the aspect of his most famous case, and how it fit into events of the time.  There are several fine biographies of Houdini that will be more helpful if his career is the reader’s primary interest.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad by E. Randall Floyd

American history is full of offbeat people, some downright weird.  The author was (like many a lad) fascinated by their stories when he was young.  Then he got to interview Erich von Daeniken (Chariots of the Gods) and decided to make writing about unusual people a full-time hobby.  This book is one of the results.

The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

It contains 37 mini-biographies of interesting people in American history, arranged alphabetically from Jane Addams (social worker and pacifist) to Wovoka (Native American mystic and the leader of the “Ghost Dance” movement.)  There are the really obvious candidates, like “Emperor” Joshua Norton of San Francisco and Nikola Tesla (eccentric inventor.)  But there are also more obscure figures, like Giacomo Beltrami, who didn’t quite discover the source of the Mississippi, and Bernarr MacFadden (health nut.)

The writing is okay, but these are very short biographies, and some of the subjects have had entire (and much better) books written about them.  There are no illustrations, no citations or bibliography, and no index.  Your college professor isn’t going to accept this as a source!

While written for adults, I think this book would best serve as a gift to a bright teenager who can then look further for more information about any person that catches their fancy.  It’s a good book for a quick read, and some interesting historical moments.

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Crossovers Casebook

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Crossovers Casebook edited by Howard Hopkins

One of the fun things about fan fiction is the “crossover.”  That’s where two separate fictional worlds are combined in the same story, which is generally impossible in the source material.  Having the Enterprise crew battle the Daleks, Sailor Moon teaming up with the Brady Bunch, Bella Swan falling in love with Dracula, or any other bizarre combination the fan writer can think of.

Crossovers Casebook

Combine this with a public domain (mostly) character like Sherlock Holmes, and you can even do professionally published crossover fan fiction.  And thus this book.  Each story teams Holmes with other fictional characters or real people from the time period of the stories.  Some of the tales just barely qualify as crossovers with a quick reference at the end, while others pile on the characters and cameos.

There are fourteen stories, most of which are only available in this volume.   “Sherlock Holmes and the Lost World” by Martin Powell, which guest stars Professor Challenger, has appeared in another anthology.  Other notable tales are “The Adventure of the Fallen Stone” by Win Scott Eckert, which goes full-on Wold-Newton (a fan theory that ties together many fictional heroes with a mysterious meteorite), and “The Adventure of the Imaginary Nihilist” by Will Murray, which guest stars Richard Henry Savage, a real life person who inspired parts of both Doc Savage and the Avenger.

I particularly liked Barbara Hambly’s “The Adventure of the Sinister Chinaman”, which guest stars the Wizard of Oz…or a delusional man with a similar name.  “The Adventure of the Lost Specialist” by Christopher Sequeira lays on the crossovers thick with an outright science fiction premise, but as Watson himself admits in the introduction, it’s not much of a traditional Holmes tale.

There’s also “The Folly of Flight” by Matthew P. Mayo, guest starring French thief Arsené Lupin.  Lupin’s author, Maurice LeBlanc, was one of the first Sherlock Holmes crossover fan fiction authors;   Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not appreciate the compliment, so Lupin’s clashes with Holmes were rewritten with a slightly different name, and a bit more mocking of a tone.

This is a fun book, but not for Holmes purists.

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