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: Second Street Station

Book Review: Second Street Station by Lawrence H. Levy

The “historical mystery” sub-genre is the intersection of the mystery and historical fiction genres.   Pick a time period in the past (there’s no minimum gap requirement, but it’s best to pick one far enough back that everyone involved is conveniently dead), research it, stir some real life people and events into a fictional murder, and voila!  Many such have become well-loved mystery series.

Second Street Station

This particular volume is set in Brooklyn (still a separate city from New York at the time) in the 1880s.  The combination of a  high-profile murder case and political pressure from women’s groups results in Chief Campbell of the Second Street Station police to hire Mary Handley as Brooklyn’s first female police detective.  As Mary investigates the Goodrich murder, she must battle not only sexism, but the power of wealthy men who have dark secrets, and an unsuspected enemy from her past.

This story is very loosely based on a real life murder case, so don’t Google ‘Mary Handley” if you’re going to read this book, as it will reveal a huge spoiler.  However, a lot of extra plot has been added around those bare bones to make this a novel.   It is kind of fun to watch Mary being all competent and smart-mouthed (the author’s background in sitcom writing shows in her ready witticisms).

Mary Handley has very 21st Century attitudes, while the “bad guys” have more period-appropriate 19th Century prejudices.  This sometimes makes it feel like the writer is trying to appeal to modern readers more than trying to present an authentic feel to the story.  One glaring example is that Mary just happens to befriend a Chinese immigrant family whose father just happens to be a jujitsu master and teach Mary his skills.    Why a Chinese immigrant is a master of the traditionally Japanese art of jujitsu is never explained.

Remember what I said about the real-life people being conveniently dead?  This is important as Thomas Edison gets a “historical villain upgrade”, being even more vile (probably) than he was in actual history.   That’d be a clear case for libel if he were still around.  Oddly enough, one of the plot elements here reminded me of the Milestone Comics title Hardware; those familiar with that series will spot it too.

A lot of space is devoted to cocaine, still legal at that point, as Mary interacts with the Pembertons, inventors of Coca-Cola.

There is also a character referred to as “Bowler Hat” after his favorite headgear.  He is important to Mary’s life in several ways, mostly negative, though it’s clear from early on that he’s not involved in the murder she’s investigating.

In addition to the expected violence and some consensual sex, there is a gratuitous rape scene.  I was not pleased.  Mary’s also a bit of a potty-mouth.

All in all, the story is fanciful and readers should not think about it too hard lest it fall apart at the seams.  It’s diverting, but flawed.

Disclaimer:  I received this book from Blogging for Books on the premise that I would read and review it.  No other compensation is involved.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends by Various

Back in the 1970s, there was a Saturday morning cartoon titled Superfriends.  It featured several superheroes from DC Comics,, plus “Junior Super Friends” Wendy and Marvin, trainee superheroes with their pet Wonderdog.   Each episode taught valuable life lessons to kids across America.  While reruns of the cartoon continue even today, younger fans may not be aware there used to be a tie-in comic book as well.

Showcase Presents Super Friends

Because the Comics Code of the time was surprisingly less restrictive than the Standards & Practices Board that governed children’s broadcasting, the writers of the comic book had more flexibility to put in story elements that explained how the team worked, and the full range of the heroes’ powers.  The book took place in a close parallel of the DC universe, so other superheroes could guest star.

Now, I said the writers could be more flexible than the TV show, but I am still amazed that they got away with mass murder as a plot point in the third issue.  Some of the deaths even happened on panel!  And they weren’t even reversed by the end of the story.  To explain, a mad scientist captures over a hundred supervillains (none of whom were established characters) and disintegrates them to create the World-Beater, which has all their powers combined.

After a few issues, the comic book explained (as the show never did) the change from the first season’s Marvin and Wendy, to the later Wonder Twins, aliens named Jan and Zayna.   This was a truly epic plot which also introduced a slew of international superheroes who later joined the mainstream DCU as the Global Guardians.  (It also gave the comic some much-needed ethnic diversity.)

Many creators worked on the series, but the distinctive art of Ramona Fradon is perhaps most representative.

Aside from the mass murder, this is a kid-friendly title; there are some dated attitudes that parents might want to discuss with their children.  The writing is typical for the time period, and certainly better than the television show.

Recommended for fans of the Superfriends cartoon and nostalgic comics fans.

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