Believing in ghosts is a lot like believing in the characters of a well-wrought novel. Human figures floating in the mind, delineated with such clarity and likelihood alas, they do not exist in the objective world. A skeptical investigator into paranormal phenomena has much in common, therefore, with a skeptical book reviewer: both of them are ready to disenchant. In the case of Joseph Gangemi's debut novel, both of these skeptics one inside looking out, the other outside looking in are delightfully bound to fail.
The narrator, Martin Finch, finds himself assisting the investigative committee charged by Scientific American magazine with testing all those who respond to its offer of $5,000 for "conclusive psychic manifestations." A graduate student in psychology at Harvard eager to impress his professor, Finch proves himself to be an insuperable foe to the fakes who hope to hoodwink the committee and grab the prize. Gangemi takes us into the spiritualist fever of the post-World War I years, vividly recreating an atmosphere in which a scientific journal incites its employees to satisfy the public's hunger for authentic spooks. One of the author's master strokes is to bring Arthur Conan Doyle briefly into the game. The creator of Sherlock Holmes that supreme enemy of the irrational was also one of the era's leading inquirers into psychic phenomena. The paradox is not as astonishing as it may at first appear: a preoccupation with reason leaves many gaps in the human mind, and into the largest and most formidable of these, love rushes in.
Conan Doyle writes to the committee to recommend that they test a Mrs. Crawley of Philadelphia, a lady of extraordinary psychic gifts. In the course of the investigation, it is the most natural thing in the world for young Martin Finch to fall head over heels for the beautiful Mina Crawley. Finch is bewitched by his inamorata, but Mina's charm is much more complicated than anything advertised by Conan Doyle. As strange and alluring as Mrs. Crawley herself is the city where she lives. To Finch, Philadelphia seems an old-fashioned place in 1922. His sense of what's new seems old-fashioned to us in turn. This whimsical dance of time is the novel's finest work of enchantment. Michael Alec Rose is a music professor at Vanderbilt University.