Fast-paced ‘London Seance Society’ a gothic mystery; ‘Maltese Iguana’ a Florida Keys trip – Sun Sentinel
‘The London Séance Society’ by Sarah Penner. Park Row. 352 pages, $28.99
During the Victorian Era, spiritualism, ghost sightings and séances were the rage in Great Britain and the United States as people from all strata of society yearned to communicate with the dead. In her second novel, Sarah Penner again visits that spiritualist movement, showing the desperation of those who want to commune with departed loved ones, the frequent scams, the danger and the misogyny that often ruled.
The fast-paced “The London Séance Society” also offers a feminist melding of a gothic tale with a mystery. And, since séances often are involved, readers can count on a solid locked-room tale, with myriad scary moments.
Set in 1873, “The London Séance Society” begins in Paris, the current home of Vaudeline D’Allaire, a celebrated medium known throughout the world for conjuring the spirits of murder victims who reveal their killers. An incident forced Vaudeline to abruptly flee London, fearing for her safety.
Vaudeline is accompanied by Lenna Wickes, a spiritualist understudy but who also is skeptical about the whole spiritualist culture. But Lenna has a personal reason to work with Vaudeline — if a séance does work she wants to communicate with her recently deceased sister, Evie, who also was an emerging medium working with Vaudeline.
The two women agree to return to London to hold a séance to uncover the killer of Vaudeline’s mentor, Mr. Volckman, murdered the same night Evie died. Mr. Morley, director of the all-male London Séance Society, assures the safety of both women and promises to sneak them into the society’s club, which forbids women to enter.
Penner skillfully makes each aspect of “The London Séance Society” believable, even when the otherworldly appear in the form of apparitions. The séances are so vivid that the fright factor elevates the plot. The action is non-stop, and Penner shows that gun battles and car chases are not de riguer to create tension and terror.
It’s fitting that the male members of the London Séance Society are referred to as Mr., to create an illusion of power. And illusion is the fuel that drives the society’s members. Vaudeline and Lenna are well-developed characters, and their growing physical and emotional attraction adds to the plot.
The beliefs that fuel the plot aren’t much different than the contemporary use of psychics (one on every corner it seems), tarot cards and astrology. Penner includes a look at the spiritualist movement’s history, Victorian mourning customs and food served at funerals including a recipe for Victorian Funeral Biscuits that actually sounds delicious.
Meet the author
Sarah Penner, “The London Séance Society,” will be among the authors at the Literary Feast, sponsored by the Broward Public Library Foundation. She will discuss her work during LitLive’s free mystery fiction panel 6:30 to 7:15 p.m. March 31 at Barnes & Noble, 2051 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, 954-561-3732. Visit bplfoundation.org for details on LitLive and the Night of Literary Feast.
‘The Maltese Iguana’ by Tim Dorsey. Morrow. 336 pages, $28.99
San Francisco had its Maltese Falcon — “The stuff that dreams are made of. The dingus” as Dashiell Hammett described — which was sought and fought after for centuries. Tim Dorsey puts a Florida spin — and a lot less sophistication — in the stuff of dreams that enhances his 26th slapstick mystery “The Maltese Iguana.”
Like Hammett’s “Falcon,” Dorsey’s “Iguana” is a statue dating back centuries that many people are trying to find. But the “Iguana” has a less glamorous resting place — attached to the end of a bong owned by Serge A. Storms, a serial killer and Florida historian who is perpetually irritated by rude behavior and those who prey on the vulnerable. Yes, that is Dorsey’s version of a hero.
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Dorsey has built a career on the oddly likable and somehow charming killer Serge and his rather useless sidekick Coleman, whose main job is being permanently stoned. Dorsey’s novels are wrapped in thin plots using guttural, often coarse humor that often works.
A prominent part of each Serge novel is his encyclopedia knowledge of Florida history and lore, those little tidbits that have become obscure as well as those seemingly outlandish situations that are grounded in reality. This is Florida, after all. (If in doubt, google Florida Easter Bunny brawler hero.)
But “The Maltese Iguana” lacks Dorsey’s usual zing, the humor is more subdued and the plot often undecipherable.
The Covid lockdown forced Serge and Coleman off the road, housebound in Pelican Bay, the condominium complex in the Florida Keys where they’ve been living. But Serge still was able to be the criminal he enjoys being, only for a good cause. One example: hijacking a scalper’s truck loaded with masks and wipes, then distributing these supplies to those in need.
But now that restrictions are being lifted, Serge gets his neighbors and himself back on the road with “off-the-hook, barn-storming” Florida Keys Underbelly Tours that become widely successful. A side plot has a botched CIA operation in Honduras leading to a death with an honest police officer running for his life. Naturally, everything converges in Florida, and always where Serge is.
While a Serge novel usually travels to each area of the state, “The Maltese Iguana” stays in the Keys with a side trip to Miami and a dip into Miramar. Even with the limited travelogue, Dorsey finds his share of history, from Florida’s role in WWII, the Keys’ past and movies filmed in the Sunshine State.
As for that Maltese Iguana, it gets plenty of use.