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.

Manga Review: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 14

Manga Review: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 14 story by Eiji Ohtsuka, art by Housui Yamazaki

It’s finally out!  To recap for newer readers, the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is five students at a Buddhist college that each have skills or talents related to the dead.  They form a small firm that fulfills the last requests of corpses, resulting in creepy yet funny stories often focused around odd bits of Japanese culture.

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 14

This volume has three stories; the first has our heroes going up against a fake Kurosagi team of corpse disposal workers who are actually making a profit.  It unfolds into a conspiracy involving a completely unnecessary dam project  that has been claiming lives for three generations.  The story also introduces a mysterious man named Nishi who manipulates social media and may communicate with the dead via smartphone app.

The second story is a one-shot breather about an Americanized cartoon version of the series, where the boys are all pizza delivery workers (with special talents) who wind up employed by the FBI’s Black Heron division identifying corpses that died in bizarre circumstances.  There are interesting touches, like making one of the delivery guys a former rescue worker who discovered his powers on 9/11, and the diminutive embalmer an actual child prodigy.  But it would never fly as an actual American cartoon due to the morbid bits.  (At the end we learn it’s a bootleg DVD Numata picked up…along with a leather jacket with a really cool design…which turns out to be made by the bad guys in the cartoon!)

And the volume wraps up with another political story, as a museum of execution devices is abruptly closed by the government agency that controls it just before an investigation into its funding is about to take place.  It seems that more than one person is losing their head over bureaucracy.   The villain uses a gender-based slur.

As usual, the art and writing are excellent, with the “cartoon” section allowing the artist (and assistants) to show off some range.  There’s an extensive endnotes section with all the cultural references and in-jokes, which Kurosagi is rich with.  It’s been about two years since the last volume due to undeservedly poor sales; the problem is that this series, while of superior quality, is very niche in its appeal.  Dark Horse will be releasing the early volumes in “omnibus” editions, so I urge readers to purchase those to increase the chances we’ll see volume 15 this decade.

This particular volume doesn’t have any appreciable nudity, but there is some nasty violence and dismembered corpses, so the mature readers warning still applies.

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: From Ghouls to Gangsters: The Career of Arthur B. Reeve Volume 1

Book Review: From Ghouls to Gangsters: The Career of Arthur B. Reeve Volume 1 edited by John Locke

Arthur B. Reeve (1880-1936) was a newspaper reporter who decided to try his hand at writing fiction.  As it happened, he turned out to be very good at it, making a huge hit with his most famous character, scientific detective Craig Kennedy.  He became America’s most popular detective story writer from 1910-1920, and continued to do pretty well thereafter (despite a bankruptcy when a man who’d commissioned a  bunch of work failed to pay) until his death.  Mr. Reeve also worked on films and radio, and did true crime reporting as well.

From Ghouls to Gangsters

This first volume is a collection of short stories; the second volume has non-fiction by and about Mr. Reeve.  The first story appears to be his first sale, “The Cat that Didn’t Come Back” (1907), a gruesome but comedic tale of a man attempting to dispose of a cat’s corpse.  The majority of stories are about Craig Kennedy, a professor of chemistry who decides to use his knowledge of science to solve crimes.  He’s assisted by newspaper reporter Walter Jameson, the Watson-like narrator.

We begin with the 1910 story “The Case of Helen Bond.”  A man has died of a heart attack, but the fact that his safe was burgled the same night casts a suspicion of foul play.  Mr. Kennedy uses a primitive type of lie detector (and his brain) to crack the case.   The professor owes a great deal to Sherlock Holmes, but is considerably less eccentric.  In the Holmes tradition, the reader is not given all the clues, but must wait for Mr. Kennedy to sum up the case and how the science plays in.

That story was published in Cosmopolitan, but Kennedy stories appeared in many places, including Boys’ Life (which introduced a young nephew for him) and Country Gentleman.  By the 1930s, Mr. Reeve’s stories mostly appeared in the detective pulps, and took on a more “gangbusters” feel.  He was also beginning to reuse plot beats from earlier, out of print stories.

The science in some of the stories is a bit dated, particularly the case that’s solved by Freudian dream analysis.   As well, period ethnic prejudice pops up from time to time.  Mr. Reeve appears to have been progressive in his views of women for 1910, but some bits look odd from a modern perspective.

Mr. Reeve wrote several stories with female protagonists as detectives, including medical Dr. Mary Mannix and “secret agent” Clare Kendall.  One of the latter’s stories closes out the volume, “The Royal Racket” (1935).  Clare helps identify two corpses, and is then asked to advise a young couple that suspects some of their new social crowd might be less than honest.   The two cases are of course connected.

The Boys’ Life story “The Polar Flight of the ZR-10” (1924) is notable for not being so much a mystery as a speculative fiction story.  The title dirigible is being used to test a transpolar flight route between America and Europe, and finds a long-lost colony of Vikings.  The mystery subplot arises from a “beat the Reds” race that feels more 1950s than 1920s.

Overall, the stories are good, if mostly dated, and demonstrate Mr. Reeve’s ability to write to a specific magazine’s intended audience.  Most of the earlier stories were heavily edited for book publication to make them pseudo-novels, and the later ones have never been reprinted before, which makes this a good collector’s item for detective story fans.

 

Book Review: Pearlhanger

Book Review: Pearlhanger by Jonathan Gash

Lovejoy is a “divvy” (presumably from “diviner”), a person who can just feel if an antique is genuine by standing near it.  This is a great help in his career as an antiques dealer.  But just because he’s got a gift of his own doesn’t mean he believes in anything else supernatural.  So he’s a bit put out when he’s asked to attend a seance with Donna Vernon, who’s looking for her lost husband.  Missing person cases aren’t normally in his baliwick either.

Pearlhanger

However, this particular missing person is an antiques dealer himself, who vanished while on a cross-country buying sweep.  So Lovejoy finds that he’s been roped into the hunt.  Things quickly get suspicious, as Mr. Vernon doesn’t seem to be very good at antique hunting, and the actual end of the voyage appears to be a fabulous pearl pendant known as “the Siren”.  And then the medium gets murdered after saying she has another message from beyond….

This is the ninth Lovejoy book; I have not read any of the earlier ones, nor have I seen the television adaptaion.   He’s described in the back cover blurb as a “rake”; he’s promiscuous, sexist, self-centered, loves pulling nasty tricks on people and is often in trouble with the law.  On the other hand, he sometimes does quite nice things for people as long as it will also make him a profit of some sort.  That, and the fact that his narration makes it clear he’s easily led around by his appetites, makes him bearable.

A typical moment of his irritating side is when his apprentice Eric for once actually checks to see if an object is genuine, and refuses to buy it.  Lovejoy berates him, because this particular fake was extremely valuable in itself, neglecting to consider he hadn’t told the lad this important detail.

Most of the mystery part of the story is solved about halfway through when the murderer actually confesses to Lovejoy–but our protagonist has no proof, and must come up with a clever scheme involving antiques to see that some form of justice is served.

I am told that the television series smoothed out Lovejoy’s sharper edges quite a bit (for example, giving him a steady love interest as opposed to chasing any likely tail in the neighborhood.)  This is not a book for those who prefer the hero be more morally upright than not.  The ending drives home his moral ambiguity.

But if you liked the TV show, or have a fondness for sleazy mystery protagonists, this is an amusing read.

Magazine Review: Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue

Magazine Review:  Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow

Conjunctions is a literary journal published twice a year by Bard College.  Each issue contains essays, short fiction, poetry and less classifiable writing on a given subject, with this issue being about death.  Literary journals tend to have a connotation of pretentiousness, and death is one of the primal subjects, so I approached this 2008 issue with a bit of trepidation.

Conjunctions 51

The issue starts strong with an essay entitled “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies” by Sallie Tisdale.  It’s a stomach-churning but very informative look at flies, Buddhism, and the Buddha nature of flies.  The ending piece is “Andalucia” by H.G. Carrillo, the story of a writer mourning his artist lover, who has died of AIDS.

In between, the most memorable pieces are Joyce Carol Oates’ “Dear Husband”, a chilling suicide note; and “St. Francis Preaches to the Birds” by David Ives, a not-quite-working comedic play about the saint’s encounter with vultures.  Several of the pieces caused me to shed a tear.  Sadly, as I cannot make head or tail of the appeal of modern poetry, I feel unable to comment on whether any of the poetry was good.   Two pieces are illustrated with photographs, the only visual art in the issue.

With forty pieces altogether, this is a thick volume that takes some grit to get through.  I understand that the Oates story is in one of her own anthologies, so if noir fiction is your thing, you might want to check that out.   The rest is a mixed bag; see if your library system has a copy of this or other issues so you can see if Conjunctions is something you want to subscribe to.

“I am merely departing”–Lucius Seneca.

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