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The Séance Society by Michael Nethercott

January 21, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

Michael Nethercott CREDIT: Helen Schepartz

Michael Nethercott
CREDIT: Helen Schepartz

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.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993) (Season 5, episode 7) is an adaptation of a short story that first appeared in 1932. It was then expanded for inclusion in Murder in the Mews, a collection published in 1937. Such is always the way with an author. You write something one day and then see a way in which it can be improved the next. Except, of course, the expansion does little to help a modern television company looking for a one-hour show. The challenge for Anthony Horowitz as scriptwriter, therefore, is to remain faithful to the spirit of the original while adding to it. In many ways, the strategy adopted here for filling out the content is rather clever. The textual story begins with Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) peremptorily summoned by Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore (Iain Cuthbertson) and, when he arrives, he finds his client dead. Since the key to the case is the eponymous mirror, the television version has Sir Gervase outbid Hercule Poirot for the mirror at an auction and then use the mirror to lure the detective to his home and accept a commission to investigate an initially unspecified fraud. In other words, Hercule Poirot would not usually have forgiven the man for his rudeness, but would swallow his pride if he thought he would get the mirror in part-payment for his services.

Vanda (Zena Walker) asks her spirit for guidance

So, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) set off into the countryside by train. We have backstory showing Ruth (Emma Fielding) has already married Lake (Richard Lintern) with Ms Lingard (Fiona Walker) secretly observing, and our dynamic duo meet Susan (Tushka Bergen) on the train. Hugo (Jeremy Northam) meets them at the station and we see his workshop where he’s trying to develop stainless-steel framed furniture for the market. Sir Gervaise is threatening to cut him off without a penny which would leave him unable to pursue his commercial dreams. When we arrive at the house, Sir Gervaise wants Poirot to investigate Lake for an apparent fraud. More interestingly, we then come to another Agatha Christie supernatural element. The wife of Sir Gervaise is called Vanda (Zena Walker). She believes she has a spirit guide from Ancient Egypt who has warned her that a death is coming. Hercule Poirot is fascinated and gets details.

We then follow the plot of the original story except now Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are house guests. Captain Hastings hears the gong for dinner, but Hercule Poirot does not. They both hear what they assume to be a shot and, when they break into the study, find Sir Gervaise has apparently shot himself in the head holding a gun in his left hand. This looks to be a suicide with the mirror broken by the bullet. When Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) arrives on the scene, he’s all for it being self-inflicted, but Hercule Poirot points out that the man was right-handed and he’s curious as to where the bullet is.

Hugo (Jeremy Northam) and Susan (Tushka Bergen) talk about furniture

We then have some nice padding involving Lake’s fraud and get into the ending where Anthony Horowitz has outdone himself to flesh out the supernatural element into a full-blown manifestation of the Egyptian spirit. It’s all magnificently silly but it does nicely bring us to the hour mark (allowing for ads) without it looking too forced. The pleasing thing about this particular episode is that, for once, the adaptation is meticulously fair in showing us all the minor hints and clues in plain sight. Too often, the answer turns on something only the great detective would have known. This time, we get every detail and have the same chance to work out who must have done it. Equally of interest is the supernatural element. As I have commented elsewhere, Agatha Christie was writing at a time when table-turning and other spiritualist events were common. She could therefore hint at current social trends and be more immediately understood. Today, we’ve moved away from accepting spiritualism as real and now indulge our interests in more extreme forms of the supernatural. What would have been considered really spooky ninety years ago would be far too tame for today’s audience. That means the modern scriptwriter is working on a knife edge to keep the sense of the original while making it less naive for our sensibilities. Finally, a word must be said about Iain Cuthbertson who contrives to be rather magnificently unpleasant in such a short space of time before being bumped off. The rest of the cast do enough to be distinctive without distracting our attention from David Suchet and Hugh Fraser. Overall Dead Man’s Mirror proves to be one of the better episodes with Hercule Poirot seen to be relying on key people to be gullible when he pushes their buttons.

For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)

Nevermore by William Hjortsberg

March 18, 2012 1 comment

William Hjortsberg: now there’s a name to conjure with. Even David Copperfield has finally abandoned abracadabra and shazam. When top magicians walk on stage, waving their arms impressively over their assistant’s hypnotised body, intoning Hjortsberg as the pendulum begins to swing would always get an audience expecting some heavy duty magic — assuming you knew how to pronounce it, of course. Checking back in my records, yes I am that obsessive, I see I read Gray Matters when it first came out but, honestly, I’ve no recollection of it. That’s neither good nor bad. In my defence, I’ve read thousands of books and can’t possibly remember all of them. Alternatively, it must be Alzheimer’s. So Nevermore (first published in 1994 and now reissued as an e-book by Open Road Media) is one of the most appropriate books for someone like me to read. Although I’m not quite old enough to have been around when the action is set, I misspent most of my youth demolishing American fiction, both pulp and mainstream from this era.

William Hjortsberg is playing the same type of game as Peter Lovesey in Keystone which examines what Fatty Arbuckle might have done in the real-world film studios of 1916. William Hjortsberg has Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle investigate murders committed in the style of Edgar Allan Poe in the New York of 1923. Better still, it’s written in a pitch-perfect prose style of the day which makes it great fun to read. William Hjortsberg is blessed with a sure ear and is obviously enjoying himself with the more pulpy vocabulary and syntax of the 1920s. Ironically, in the cast of characters, we meet Damon Runyon whose style is adjacent to this. Given the chance, he could have written much of this book — with a little prompting from our William to introduce the more supernatural and macabre elements.

William Hjortsberg looking out of the past thanks to Janie Camp

Before looking at the plot, we must celebrate the appearance of Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle as investigators. This use of real people is growing more common as historical fiction is popularised through mashups and steampunk. Today, all manner of real and fictional characters parade through the pages of novels for our entertainment. Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, appears alongside Oscar Wilde in the mystery series by Giles Brandreth and in one of the Murdoch Mysteries based on the characters created by Maureen Jennings, as well as having his own short television series called Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes. The nice thing about this book is that, historically, we see the relationship between Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini portrayed with some degree of accuracy. It starts us off at the fragile stage before the rather public “falling out”. As an irrelevant note, I see I’ve almost managed to publish this review on Houdini’s birthday — such is the spooky power of coincidence pretending to be a supernatural event.

So into action with spirits, ghosts, mediums and Halloween to the fore. As befits anyone who so fervently believes in spiritualism, Arthur Conan Doyle is visited by Edgar Allan Poe except it’s presented as real-time conversations, Poe characterising Doyle as “. . .a traveler from the future. . .” or a ghost emitting a spectral light. Harry Houdini gets to talk with his mother and engage in a little extramarital excitement. For once, both our heroes are on the same page (pun intended) on the reality of spiritual experiences, although not on whether the spirits are real. As the master of illusion should know, not everything you experience is real. So there are a series of deaths that recreate some of the scenes from Poe’s short stories. Arthur Conan Doyle’s initial impression is that these are random, probably the work of a madman. He opines it will be impossible to track down the killer. Except Harry Houdini slowly comes to see a link between the victims and, when he shares it with Arthur Conan Doyle, they conclude everyone in Harry Houdini’s circle may be at risk. The problem, as always in these situations, is how to guard against the unknown attacker.

Put all this together and what do we have? It’s probably fair to classify this as a pure mystery. For all there are possible supernatural elements and some references to Poe’s work suggesting a veneer of horror, Nevermore is actually a wonderful piece of literary flim-flam which, for these purposes, I will define as wit skating over the thin ice of parody and emerging with a triple lutz (one of those miraculous jumps Olympic skaters make look effortless). I was hooked from the first page and found myself irresistibly propelled to the end. Based on this, I should go back and reread Gray Matters to see what I’ve forgotten. Fortunately, this is now possible, courtesy of Open Road Media which, in addition to Nevermore, is republishing Gray Matters, Falling Angel and Symbiography as e-books. Yet more spooky coincidences.

A copy of this e-book was sent to me for review.

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