Gabriel Brownstein, winner of the Pen/Hemingway Award for his collection of short stories, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W, explores the colorful world of New York City in 1922 in this debut novel. Using the actual friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, he offers a story that examines the spiritualist movement, which was popular at that time. After losing his son in World War I, Doyle became a proponent of spiritualism. Houdini felt that the demonstrations of communication with the dead were mere theatrical tricks and published pamphlets exposing the false mediums.
Doyle, convinced that a striking medium named Margery has supernatural powers, invites Houdini to one of her séances. Molly Goodman, a young reporter hoping for her first big story, attends hoping to learn the medium’s true identity. Raised in a secular Jewish family, Molly is mourning her brother’s untimely death, but her story is far less interesting than the Houdini/Doyle conflict. Brownstein is at his best when describing New York City and its diverse inhabitants. His vivid descriptions of Houdini’s famous escape from a sealed box dropped into the Hudson River and the antics at Margery’s séance are fascinating, but the story rushes to a climax too quickly and the villain is not sufficiently developed. Readers will find the historical details compelling and the conflict between science and spiritual matters is thought-provoking in today’s political climate.