In Black’s complex, skillfully told stand-alone, Flynn Kiernan finds herself researching the provenance of an unusual “spirit photograph” she purchases at an estate sale. The 1875 photo depicts risqué photographer Medora Lamb with the ghostly images of her husband, Alec Ingersoll, and their good friend, Cameron Langley, who all lived together until Medora and Cam were found dead in their Chicago house.
Along with court documents and Cam’s secret diary is the perspective of Victoria Woodhull, real-life feminist, Free Love advocate, and spiritualist, whom Alec, on trial for the murder of Medora and Cam, engages to hold a séance to find out who really killed them. Through the fiery Woodhull, Black (An Uncommon Enemy) shows where the social limits of even the most liberal women of the period might lie.
The smooth prose moves subtly between historical and modern investigative voices, leading the reader to muse along with the characters on the nature of how love has changed over the centuries.
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
**** Michelle Black: Séance in Sepia, Five Star, $25.95.
A photograph found tucked into a book at an estate sale becomes the vehicle for a fascinating and dramatic historical mystery set amidst Free Love and Spiritualist movements of the 1870s. Antiquarian bookseller Flynn Kiernan’s discovery of an early “spirit photograph” leads her and those around her to delve into the mystery surrounding the three figures in the photograph.
The bulk of the novel is set in 1870s New York and Chicago where a love triangle leaves two people dead and the third holding the gun. Historical figure Victoria Woodhull—a suffragist, medium, advocate of Free Love, and first woman to run for the American presidency—intercedes to determine if Alec Ingersoll really killed his wife and his best friend. The narrative is deftly reinforced by courtroom transcripts and journal entries.
Real-life feminist Victoria Woodhull experiences the fictional consequences of free love.
On a quest for stock for her father’s used-book store, Flynn Kiernan comes upon a “spirit photograph” featuring the three participants in the scandalous Free Love Murders in 1875 Chicago, where Alec Ingersoll was tried for the murder of his wife Medora and her lover, his best friend Cam Langley. When Flynn puts the photo up for auction on eBay, one bidder, Matt Holtser, asks to license rights for a book he’s working on. He and Flynn become romantically involved while tracking the history of the photo. Their search leads them to old trial records and Ingersoll’s request of noted spiritualist and free-love advocate Victoria Woodhull to conduct a séance that will disclose who really killed Medora and Cam.
Did the overwrought Medora commit suicide? Did Cam, in despair over his disloyalty to Ingersoll, kill Medora and then himself? The Woodhull, as she was known, nearly comes to the same fate as Medora as she explores the dead woman’s relationships with the men in her life, including a stint as a photographer’s assistant that led her to a little foray into blackmail. Although The Woodhull will be able to sort through the events that resulted in the murders, her belief in the free love professed by the Oneida Community will be so sorely tested that she’ll pack in her own marriage and head for England to live out her life.
Historical novelist Black (The Second Glass of Absinthe, 2003, etc.) is awkward at dialogue but dandy at plotting. And three cheers for Victoria Woodhull, whose place in the feminist pantheon is richly deserved.