Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book review: Séance in Sepia, by Michelle Black

For her sixth historical novel, Michelle Black trades the vast landscapes of the historical and modern West for the social reforms and spiritualist beliefs of mid-19th century Chicago.

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.


  1. Living in Upstate NY all my life(further north an Albany) I'm familiar with the history, but was unaware a book was coming out about it. Hmm. Sounds interesting.

  2. The flatware co at Oneida has quite a scandalous history, no?

    This novel doesn't take place in upstate NY, but one of the principal characters is described as having been born there - and her upbringing influences her actions.

  3. She sounds like an author that is worth checking out. Not only have I not read her before, but I also don't remember hearing of her.

  4. To YA Librarian--the Oneida Community was a fascinating subject to study (and deserves its own novel). It was one of the most successful of the Utopian Communities of the 19th Cen.
    They had remarkably modern ideas--that women can and should enjoy sex and that men should take responsibility for birth control are two of my favorites. Also, child care centers for working women--and this 1840's, 50's.
    Some of their other ideas, though, we still aren't ready for. (Experiments with incest and eugenics, for example. Ick.)

  5. I definitely want to read this book!

  6. Ms. Black, yes they were very radical. This entire area was a bunch of radicals. We had the Jerry Rescue, Seneca Falls, the Graham Crackers and free love in Oneida. Such a crazy bunch.

    Good luck with your novel! :)

  7. I've really enjoyed the previous Michelle Black books I've read and am looking forward to reading this one. The post really sparked my interest! Thank you.