In 1922, Molly Goodman is fresh out of Vassar’s School of Journalism, ready to begin a career as a writer for the New York Radio Times. Particularly interested in the Spiritualist Movement that is sweeping the land, Molly arranges an interview with the great Harry Houdini, who introduces her to his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes crime novels.
While Houdini is a skeptic, Doyle is a true believer. Molly expects to poke fun at Doyle but is impressed with his fervor and good intentions. It is a heady time for a young woman like Molly, the country just recovering from World War I and on the verge of Prohibition. As a Jewish feminist, Molly is ready to tackle anything the world can throw at her. 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 abrasions of the rough ropes and heavy chains used in his magic act, his belly rounded with age, but thighs are still wrestler-thick. Houdini believes “the magician’s greatest trick is to appear ordinary.” In contrast, Doyle is “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.”
In Atlantic City to investigate the Spiritualist Movement in the person of the popular and mysterious Margery, Doyle falls immediately under her spell, determined to convince his friend Houdini of the worthiness of her cause. Margery and her husband, Dr. Hugo Sabatier, hope to start a foundation for the study of spiritualism, and 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.
Houdini is 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. 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. Margery is renowned for her séances, a “pseudopod” or ectoplasmic arm emerging from her body capable of writing messages and wreaking havoc in communication with the spirit world.
Molly observes the conflict between Houdini and Sir Arthur, with Margery at the center of the debate, Sabatier lurking on the sidelines. What began as a fascinating quest into a popular movement becomes a scandal, with accusations of murder and criminal fraud. While Molly muddles through her personal life, the drama plays out, the more seedy aspects of a lucrative endeavor in a gullible world. In this spellbinding and richly atmospheric novel, the protagonists are charmingly flawed in an era where the scientific and the spiritual coexist, magic in the mind of the beholder.