The book I want to talk about today is something of a wild card, at least in the way I happened to read it. Inamorata by Joseph Gangemi originally came out in 2004, but I picked it up completely at random several years after that. I was in a Barnes and Noble sometime back in 2008 or thereabouts, and in the front of the store were all these aisles of bargain hardbacks that I would always browse through. This particular novel caught my eye because its cover was so striking; the paperback cover is nice too, but it’s not remotely the same, being mostly plain black with a little greenish bird in the middle. The hardback cover, on the other hand, had a vaguely art nouveau looking frame in red and orange, surrounding a field of black with séance imagery on it. I love stories about séances and spiritualism, and even though I had never heard of the author and had never heard anyone talking about this book, the blurb on the inside flap sounded really intriguing. The thing was only five bucks, so I bought it, read it, and loved it.
When I was looking around more recently for another book to review for this series, I was hunting through my shelves and remembered how much I had liked this book the first time, and decided to reread it for review. And wow, I’m really glad I did, because I ended up loving it even more the second time around. This is a novel that really needs more attention, I feel; it only has about three pages of reviews on Goodreads, which is tragic, and most of the reviews are pretty meh, which blows my mind because I adored this story. It might be just because the subject matter is so precisely calibrated to my specific proclivities, or perhaps that other readers were expecting something more like a ghost story, but I really don’t get the lack of enthusiasm. Oh well; there’s no accounting for taste, I suppose.
Inamorata appears to be the only novel Joseph Gangemi has written; he’s mainly known as a screenwriter. Weirdly, he also co-wrote a very decent 2007 horror thriller called Wind Chill with Emily Blunt that I, completely coincidentally, just watched and reviewed for my channel not too long ago. He also wrote the screenplay for 2014’s Stonehearst Asylum, which was loosely based on a lesser-known Edgar Allan Poe story and has been on my to-watch list for ages. Now that I’ve twigged onto the fact that it was written by the Inamorata guy, I’m gonna have to push it up the list.
Anyway, Inamorata is somewhat based on real events, though some names and personalities have been changed around. It’s set in Philadelphia during the early 1920s, and specifically during the spiritualism craze that was sweeping the nation around that time. I actually really loved the period setting, and the city becomes almost like a character in itself as the story goes on.
The novel is told in the first person, from the perspective of a young man named Martin Finch, who is a grad student at Harvard. One day, he is summoned to the office of Dr. McLaughlin, who is head of the department where Martin is studying, but also, crucially, the head of the local chapter of the American Society for Psychical Research.
At this time, in real life and in the story, the magazine Scientific American was offering a $5,000 prize to anyone who could demonstrate genuine psychic ability (including mediumship, or talking to the dead) under a certain set of investigative parameters. To that end, Scientific American had committees in all major cities across the U.S. that would go and investigate psychics who wished to be tested for the prize. In real life, Harry Houdini was on some of these committees, and though he’s mentioned in the novel, he’s not an actual character.
Martin Finch is invited along to one particular investigation by Dr. McLaughlin, largely because he’s something of a genius in coming up with these various contraptions that can be used to determine whether a medium is faking phenomena during a séance. And this upcoming investigation has the potential to be quite interesting, since the psychic they’re testing—a sort of high society woman named Mina Crawley—actually didn’t apply for the prize herself, and seems reluctant to play along, since she doesn’t really need the money. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—again, highly involved in spiritualism in real life, but only mentioned in the novel and not really a major character—swears by her, insisting her gift is real, so eventually the committee is able to persuade her to take part in an investigation to “prove” her paranormal abilities.
But shortly before they set out for Philadelphia, Dr. McLaughlin slips on the ice and breaks his hip, so Martin Finch—who was originally going along just as an assistant and technical advisor—is compelled to take his mentor’s place.
Obviously, the other members of the committee—all fussy old men of one stripe or another—aren’t too keen on having this fresh young upstart who none of them know essentially heading up the investigation on McLaughlin’s behalf and telling them all what to do. Besides that, they don’t seem to be taking the investigative process all that seriously; they basically just want to go to Philly and hit the bars and restaurants on Scientific American‘s dime, then give Mina Crawley the prize money, publish their sensational findings, and maybe get promoted for proving that psychics are real.
So when Martin arrives in town, the old farts have decided to act out in the most petty way possible, by checking into the hotel before he gets there and then telling him that there’s no room for him to stay with them. Martin, knowing what’s what and also being a bit cheeky, tells them, hey, no worries…since we’re going to be spending a lot of time at the Crawley house anyway, I’m just gonna scoot over there and see if they’ll let me crash with them.
And indeed, the Crawleys are more than welcoming. Mina is not only physically lovely, but also a beautiful, sweet person inside, and her obstetric surgeon husband seems just as accommodating. As Martin gets to know Mina, he discovers that her purported paranormal abilities are a fairly recent phenomenon, having only begun after a tragedy occurred only a year prior. She explains that she receives messages through her spirit control, who she claims is the ghost of her brother Walter.
Here’s where things start to get complicated, though. As the rest of the committee meet Mina, they all, to a man, become utterly charmed by her, thereby clouding their objectivity. Martin, too, is smitten, and is put into a very awkward position regarding his feelings for her; in other words, he’s falling in love with her, but he also thinks she’s a fake and is determined to pull out all the stops to prove it.
There’s also the very odd fact that Mina seems to return his feelings, and her husband almost seems to be encouraging the two of them to get together. For example, as Martin is staying in the house, the husband will say, oh hey, gotta go to an emergency at the hospital tonight, but Martin, why don’t you take care of Mina for me? The couple also seem to deliberately put Martin in the bedroom right next to theirs, even though the house is enormous, seemingly because they want him to listen to them having sex through the wall.
So while all this weirdness and conflict of interest is going on, the committee does actually hold some séances where some pretty spectacular manifestations take place. Walter, Mina’s spirit control, seems quite an angry specter, and really hates Mina’s husband, so will usually berate him mercilessly, as well as cause disturbances such as banging piano keys from another room, knocking over china cabinets, and so forth. Martin is convinced that Mina is faking all of this, and even finds some ambiguous evidence that she is indeed doing so, but he actually can’t figure out how she’s pulling off some of the other stuff. He begins to speculate that she might be working with her husband and/or another confederate to snow the investigators, but on the other hand, she seems like such a genuinely nice person that Martin is finding it difficult to fathom that she would deceive them on purpose, especially because she really does seem to believe that her powers are real. The mystery only deepens from there.
As I said, this isn’t a horror novel, and it’s not really a ghost story exactly, although there is some ambiguity in that regard. It’s actually more like a spiritualist mystery, and I was utterly and absolutely enchanted by it. It has such a profound sense of place and time, and the character of Martin is infused with such skeptical wit and wry humor that I found it impossible not to be completely charmed. The story is somewhat based on real events—Mina Crawley, for example, is based on real-life medium Mina Crandon, better known as “Margery” in paranormal circles, who was indeed investigated by one of Scientific American‘s committees and is rumored to have had an affair with one of the investigators—but you don’t need to have any familiarity with the real people or events to enjoy the story.
If you’re into period mystery stories about spooky séances, ill-advised romance, and scientific inquiry, this should be just what the doctor ordered. I hope more people read it, and I would also really love to see a good film adaptation.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.
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