When Flynn Keirnan spies a mysterious old photo at an estate sale, she immediately offers to buy it, believing the proceeds will help her dad's struggling used book business. The sepia-toned image of an unconventional dark-haired woman and two men appears to be a “spirit photograph.” Back in the 1870s, séances were all the rage, as were photographers who claimed to be able to capture ghostly images on film.
Flynn lists the photo on eBay and sparks a bidding war. Startled, she does some research and learns about the trio’s association with the scandalous “Free Love Murders.” In 1875 Chicago, up-and-coming architect Alec Ingersoll was accused of killing the two people he loved most: Medora Lamb, his bohemian artist wife, and his best friend, Cameron Langley. All three lived together in the same house, which caused rumors to fly.
As Flynn uncovers their stories, with the help of a cute attorney with a family connection to the murder trial, a second woman over a century earlier is following a similar path. In exchange for an exclusive jailhouse interview with Ingersoll for her radical paper, notorious feminist Victoria Woodhull agrees to conduct a séance to learn the truth about how Medora and Cam died. An outspoken lecturer and advocate for sexual freedom, Victoria finds her investigation has unexpected repercussions for her personal life. “Free love,” as it turns out, isn't so free after all.
The plot unfolds through a collection of scenes which include courtroom transcripts, journal entries, and straightforward narratives from both timelines. While some of them may seem tangentially related at first, all are cleverly drawn together just in time for a suspenseful finale. Along the way, the novel provides fascinating tidbits on episodes from 19th-century social history, from the unorthodox practices of New York’s Oneida Community to early photography techniques.
The best part of the novel, though, is in seeing how the complex relationships between the characters play out on the page. Michelle Black has a gift for crafting realistic dialogue that highlights their personalities. Her close attention to detail, from the opulence of the Palmer House hotel where Victoria takes up residence to the snappy banter of her modern protagonists, makes both settings feel equally real.
Michelle Black's Séance in Sepia was published on October 21st by Five Star at $25.95 (hardcover, 322pp). Visit the author's website as well as her blog on the Victorian West.