I don't like it when people ask me what kinds of books I like to read. My usual answer is that I like to read all different kinds of books, but while technically true it always seems unsatisfying, which is how I would describe The Séance Society, unsatisfying.
The Séance Society is the story of Lee Plunkett, a private detective that is definitely not of the hard-boiled school, his girlfriend Audrey and his mentor/assistant, Mr. O 'Nelligan, an Irishman who quotes Yeats more than even a professor of Irish Literature. Through rather nebulous means they end up investigating the death of Trexler Lloyd, a rich inventor with an interest in Spiritualism. He is apparently electrocuted in a room full of people with his own invention, something dubiously named the Spectricator.
Set in the mid 1950's this book is a throwback to the "locked-room” mysteries of the kind made popular by Agatha Christie and others. The first problem I had with this book is that most of the characters seemed like dimly-realized clichés, from Trexler, to his slinky Spanish wife Constanza, the stodgy English butler, and an aging moll by the unfortunate name of Sassafras. Throw in a goateed con man, and a pugnacious cop named Tommy Bells, and you are hip-deep in stereotypes. That might have been forgivable if the protagonists were fully drawn, but Plunkett and his girlfriend are bland and O'Nelligan far too twee to be believed.
The plot has little momentum either, so the stiff characters are even more noticeable, and Mr. Nethercott even drags out that hoariest of mystery endings, where all the characters meet in the drawing room so that the sleuth can announce the murderer, after revealing how he cracked the case.
Now every thriller certainly doesn’t have to be violent or bloody, but I usually expect a decent respect for the crime of murder. The crimes in this book feel distant and muted. There is , in fact, a kind of spinsterish feel about this book that brings to mind nothing quite so much as a novelization of an episode of Murder She Wrote. There are flashes here and there that show that Mr. Nellicott has a feel for writing, but those flashes are merely that. Most of the time I found myself grimly slogging through the prose just to get to the end, and the boom that I was hoping for merely fizzled like a wet firecracker.
In truth I dislike writing "bad" reviews, but sometimes there is nothing else that one can do. I hope the next mystery I read actually surprises me.