Two-Book Tango: Curious Affair of the Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief


Welcome to another installment of Two-Book Tango: an ongoing series in which Unbound Worlds pairs two books we think go well together. Today’s pair-up is The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle, and The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher.

Lisa Tuttle’s The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief is the first installment of what promises to be a lively excursion in Victorian fantasy: From the Casebooks of Jesperson & Lane. Jasperson Jefferson is an otherworldly savant: scholarly but lacking in practical sense.  Miss Lane, his brilliant partner, is logical and grounded, but fascinated with a less than reasonable subject: the paranormal. Together, this odd couple sets about to unravel turn of the century London’s most puzzling juxtapositions of crime and the supernatural.

In this, their first big case, Jefferson and Lane are hired to follow a prominent business owner with a troublesome habit of sleepwalking. This leads our consulting detectives into a hidden world of paranormal parlor games and mediums: practitioners of mystic arts who claim the power to speak with the dead. When a powerful, sinister force decides they don’t want Jefferson and Lane poking around anymore, mediums begin to disappear. Intrigued by the mystery, the steadfast duo refuses to drop the case.

The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief is fiction, but there’s actually a kernel of truth to be found in the story. Mediumship and other paranormal practices enjoyed an enormous burst of popularity in the United Kingdom and United States around the end of the 19th century and onward into the early twentieth, particularly after World War I.

In the twenties, many otherwise very sensible people were driven by grief into a world of seances and mediums. Among them was Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. It’s hard to believe that the father of a character celebrated for his logic and reasoning abilities could be a true believer in the powers of the occult, but it was true. He was one of thousands, probably.

Of course, the twenties was also an age of science and skepticism, and people of reason were ready and willing to put those who claimed to have paranormal abilities to the test. One of them was Doyle’s good friend, the legendary American stage magician, escapist, and part-time debunker, Harry Houdini. As a lifelong illusionist, Houdini knew every trick in the book, and was convinced the era’s mediums were using them to con vulnerable, grieving people out of their hard-earned money.

When Scientific American it stages a contest awarding a large cash prize for any medium whose powers are authenticated by a five person panel, Houdini offers his services. Eager to validate his faith, Houdini’s friend Doyle recommends Margery: a high society psychic dubbed “the Witch of Lime Street” by the papers. A contest begins, with American science — and an unlikely friendship — at stake.

Four out of five panelists vouch for Margery, but Houdini isn’t convinced. With time running out and patience wearing thin, the magician’s powers of observation is put the test. Will be able to prove that the wily Witch of Lime Street is a fraud, or will Scientific American have its reputation ruined by a gifted con artist?

Do you have to read one to enjoy the other? Absolutely not, but we think you’ll enjoy both. Let us know what you think in the comment section below!