The Séance Society by Michael Nethercott
The Séance Society by Michael Nethercott (Minotaur, 2013) offers us a genuinely intriguing set-up but, somehow, the execution doesn’t quite carry the same level of excitement through the rest of the book. We’re in historical mystery land with a trip back to 1956. Actually, I should be somewhat offended the publishers now call the 1950s “historical” like William the Conqueror just got off the boat and shot Harold in the eye, but I suppose these publishing houses are now run by the equivalent of my grandchildren and should be forgiven for having no perspective. That said, it’s 1956 and we find ourselves in Thelmont, Connecticut with youngish, thirtysomething Lee Plunkett. This version of small town America does resonate with my experience on the other side of the Atlantic. The pace of the world was slower, horizons were limited to the immediate geographical area, and the culture was repressive — some things don’t change. The outstanding feature of the book is the backstory of young Plunkett, Buster his father, and the gang of cronies who surrounded Buster and were so dismissive of number 1 son.
Despite the significant differences in temperament, Lee joins his father in the PI business in 1954. Truth be told, the son has little talent but his father’s business is not breaking world records in profitability. They make enough to get by and the fact Lee gets his licence gives him legitimacy in the local community (if not among Buster’s cronies). When Buster dies of a heart attack in 1955, this leaves Lee floating aimlessly until he’s taken in hand by Irish expat Mr. O’Nelligan — he who came to the US in 1944 with his wife and never looked back. So there we have our Holmes and his not very bright Watson who boasts a “perpetual fiancée” called Audrey. No doubt later in the series, they will marry but, for now, they live separately and kiss chastely as was the custom for those who were then walking out.
In due course, they are employed by a police detective who’s close to retirement. He’s very unhappy with the circumstances surrounding the death of Trexler Lloyd, a rich and somewhat eccentric inventor who had been bitten by the spiritualism bug. He had called a small gathering at his home in Braywick to demonstrate his new machine called the “Spectricator”, a device that would enable him to speak with the dead. Unfortunately, when he was attached to this machine, he seems to have been electrocuted — at least that was the diagnosis of the county coroner who happened to be one of the invited guests. Minutes after the body is seen by our police officer and his young partner, it was whisked off to the local crematorium. A few hours later, the urn of ash returned to the house. Some would say that was excessive efficiency. All the money passes under the will to his wife, Spanish beauty Constanza. The house goes to the Swiss groundsman, and there are smaller financial bequests to the flock of hangers on and servants. With the coroner present when death occurred and pronouncing it accidental, local police have no interest in pursuing the investigation. Hence our dynamic duo are to be employed to poke around and see what they can find out.
This book had the potential to be either very amusing or sharply satirical. We have the extraordinarily bad-tempered C.R. Kemple who has a reputation for communing with spirits from other dimensions and producing spectacular if somewhat obscure results. Then there’s Sassafras Miller who was a somewhat notorious woman, but is now redeemed and working for Trexler. Just taking these two characters could give us the opportunity for great fun, but the results are somewhat po-faced. Indeed, the whole book takes itself far too seriously with the elderly Mr. O’Nelligan speaking in a very mannered style with frequent verbal digressions and quotes from Yeats and other poets. As to our narrator: he’s one of these slightly downtrodden young men who find themselves on the receiving end of parental abuse and so fail to develop any strong personality of their own. There are vague signs of an ability to analyse and organise information, but he’s never going to be able to match the intellectual vigour of the older man.
I’m not denying the ingenuity of the puzzle the pair is given to solve, with the series of revelations nicely timed to give us the necessary twists and turns through the plot. Indeed, the fact one aspect of the murder is obvious does not detract from the one character feature I had not counted on to pinpoint exactly when things in Trexler’s world took a turn for the worse. That part of the customary gathering of all the suspects at the end for drinkies and revelations is amusingly apposite. But for all the elegant plotting the book fails to strike the right tone and so, sadly, The Séance Society ends up only average fare in the historical mystery stakes.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.