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The year is 1922, the country just recovering fronm World War I, Prohibition a popular cause. Molly Goodman, fresh out of Vassar's School of Journalism, tackles the Spiritualist Movement, arranging an interview with magician Harry Houdini, who introduces her to his literary friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Writing for the New York Radio Times, Molly Goodman, a Jewish feminist, plans on poking fun at Doyle's Spiritualist beliefs, but finds him so noble and well-intentioned that she is soon sympathetic. After seeing a photograph of Doyle and Houdini at the shore, Molly convinces her editor to let her write about the Spiritualist Movement that is all the rage, "holiness through technological means, photographs and scientific studies".
The middle-aged Harry Houdini, is not the nimble magic man of his younger years, his body now showing the marks of the rough ropes and heavy chains that bound him, his belly rounded with age, but with the thick thighs of a wrestler: "the magician's greatest trick is to appear ordinary." In contrast, Doyle considers himself "a connoisseur of the supernatural, a public proponent of the scientific study of psychological phenomena, a predictor of the... religious unification under empirically determined metaphysical principles". Doyle has recently come to Atlantic City to investigate the experiment with radio waves, signals received from as far away as Pittsburg. He thinks wireless broadcasting has a profound connection to Spiritualism, although society at large has yet to take Sir Arthur seriously on this matter.
Houdini currently claims to be the great debunker of spiritual frauds; for that reason, Doyle is drawn to the magician, appreciating that Houdini deeply respects his religious convictions, called only to expose the trickery of spiritualists who make their fortunes on the desperation of believers. By happenstance, at the beach at Atlantic City with Houdini and their respective families, Doyle makes the acquaintance of the infamous Margery and her spouse, Dr. Hugo Sabatier. Margery is renowned for her séances, where a "pseudopod", an ectoplasmic arm emerges from her body, an extraordinary limb capable of writing messages and generally wreaking havoc in communication with the spirit world. Doyle is a member of The Society for Psychological Research, in good company, with the likes of Sigmund Freud, William James and Alfred Russell Wallace.
Molly is the interested observer in the conflict between Houdini and Sir Arthur, with Margery at the center of the debate, Sabatier lurking on the sidelines. Zealously protected by her husband, Margery remains an enigma, as what began as a fascinating quest into a popular movement becomes a scandal, with accusations of murder and criminal fraud. Brownstein breathes life into his characters, especially the charismatic Houdini, a man on the downside of fame, reaching for one more bow in the spotlight; Doyle is equally as fascinating, the stolid, moral man so enamored of the Movement, blinded by his own fierce beliefs and Margery's duplicitous machinations. The drama unfolds while Molly muddles through her own personal life, the impressionistic reporter a witness to the more seedy aspects of a lucrative endeavor in a gullible world. Molly's diligence pays off, revealing the true natures of these amazing men and the mysterious medium. Brownstein has crafted a spellbinding and richly atmospheric novel, his protagonists charmingly flawed, players in an era where the scientific and the spiritual coexist, magic in the mind of the beholder. Luan Gaines/2005.