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The Spiritualist    by Megan Chance order for
by Megan Chance
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Three Rivers, 2008 (2008)
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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Megan Chance's historical novel, The Spiritualist, set in 1857 New York City when many members of high society dabbled in the 'fashion of spirit rappers and table tiltings', is as much about spiritualist practice - both the fakery and its reality - as it is a murder mystery. Evelyn Atherton, who grew up the daughter of a humble investigator, and whose mother dosed herself - and ultimately killed herself - with laudanum to avoid the visions that plagued her, married up in New York society when she wed lawyer Peter Atherton, a wealthy scion of the Knickerbockers.

But all does not seem well with her marriage. Evie complains to her friend Irene that Peter is always absent, especially since he's 'fallen in with a new medium who makes him think he's speaking to his mother's spirit.' Then Peter dies. Immediately after that event, the in-laws who previously seemed cordial, turned hostile, accusing Evie of her husband's murder - Peter's leaving everything to her in his will lent weight to their accusations, providing a clear motive. Soon Evie's life turns upside down as she shares a holding cell with shoplifters and whores. Her husband's law partner, Ben Rampling, comes to the rescue, taking her case and - after society matron Dorothy Bennett posts bail - arranging for Evie to be freed and to stay with Dorothy.

Evie and Ben decide that she should use the opportunity of her stay in Dorothy's mansion to investigate charismatic Creole medium, the 'both delicately feminine and blatantly masculine' Michel Jourdain. Before his death, Peter Atherton had been a regular at Dorothy's sťances, and Evie has reason to suspect that they led to her husband's murder. With the gallows looming ahead of her, Evie gradually uncovers all kinds of secrets, while fighting her dangerous attraction to the seductive medium, suffering frightening nightmares, coming to the realization that she has inherited her mother's talent, and being pulled into contact with the dead herself.

Megan Chance, author of An Inconvenient Wife and Susannah Morrow, offers readers another absorbing read in The Spiritualist, a novel steeped in authentic historical detail and intriguing insights into the popularity of the otherworldly - and those who exploited it to their profit - in 19th century New York.

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