The Man from Beyond
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is better known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes than an enthusiast for Spiritualism, but it is that passion which has brought him to America to lecture in 1922. While vacationing in Atlantic City with his wife and children and his friend Harry Houdini, he meets the medium Margery and her husband/manager Dr. Hugo Sabatier. Conan Doyle is all too willing to believe in Margery’s powers, but Houdini is definitely dubious, and his outspoken skepticism is such a threat to the medium and her husband that he almost loses his life during the performance of one of his escape tricks. Radio Times reporter Molly Goodman finds herself with a wealth of stories when both Conan Doyle and Houdini use her to denounce the other’s beliefs, and she finds herself more involved than she had foreseen when sources point to the medium as a fellow Vassar graduate.
Spiritualism began to flourish in the mid-nineteenth century and had other famous proponents such as Alfred Russel Wallace and Horace Greeley. Although its trappings—séances, ectoplasm, pseudopods—seem like so much hokum today, the idea of communicating with the dead is having a resurgence of popularity on American television. Those trappings, however, form the least interesting part of the book. More interesting is the contrast between Conan Doyle, the creator of the very logical Sherlock Holmes, and Conan Doyle, the Spiritualist, desperate to believe in Margery’s abilities. And yet, all the characters, Conan Doyle included, are held at a distance from the reader. While Brownstein gets all the period details right—his descriptions of New York City in the 1920s are pitch perfect—the reader finds little empathy for the characters whose motivations are neither fully revealed nor understood, a false note in a book that held more promise than it delivered.