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By Joseph Gangemi
Penguin Books, 2005, c2004. Paperback ($14)
Reviewed by Shirley H. Wetzel
It's 1922, and Harvard graduate student Martin Finch can't catch a break. His father, angered that Martin gave up medical school for the dubious profession of psychology, has cut him off, and a drunken prank at the department's Christmas soiree lays waste to the laboratory rats he's responsible for. When the department head, Dr. William McLaughlin, calls Martin into his office, he fears the worst - losing the job that allows him to just scrape by and having to leave Harvard. Instead, McLaughlin offers him a job as his assistant on a research project. The renowned magazine Scientific American is offering a $5,000 prize for "conclusive psychic manifestations" and the professor, who has credentials from the American Society for Psychical Research, has been asked to be a judge.
Finch, who is highly skeptical of the paranormal, nevertheless needs the money, and he soon finds himself knee deep in charlatans and conmen. It appears that the prize may go unclaimed, until McLaughlin receives a letter from an old friend and champion of the paranormal, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle recommends that the committee pay a visit to Mina Crawley, a Philadelphia socialite who possessed "quite the most remarkable mediumship I have yet encountered."
The lady at first resists McLaughlin's request for an interview, insisting that her abilities are a gift from God, not a subject for scientific inquiry, but finally she gives in. Martin goes to Philadelphia fully expecting to expose yet another fraud, but Mrs. Crawley proves to be more than a match for the young skeptic, and he is drawn into a world beyond his imagining.
Gangemi's engaging tale is based on true events. Scientific American did indeed run such a contest, with similar results. Mrs. Crawley is based on real-life Boston socialite Mina Crandon. Magician Harry Houdini served on the committee that investigated her talents; despite his best efforts to debunk her, the case ended in a draw.
The author paints a vivid portrait of the post-World War I spiritualism craze, and of life in Boston, New York and Philadelphia during that time. This novel of history, mystery and the paranormal is highly entertaining.
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