________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 2 . . . . September 12, 2008

cover The Séance.

Iain Lawrence.
New York, NY: Delacorte Press (Distributed in Canada by Random House Canada), 2008.
261 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
ISBN 978-0-385-73375-5.

Subject Headings:
Houdini, Harry, 1874-1926-Fiction.
Mystery and detective stories.

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Gregory Bryan.

*** /4


She pulled me off balance. I toppled forward, stiff as a stick. Even with nobody there to see us, I was embarrassed. I thought I was too old to be hugging my mother. But, in a way, I didn’t mind.

“You’re so cold!” she said. “You’re not getting sick, are you?”

“No, Mom,” I said.

It was strange. She was the medium, so why was I the one who felt chilled and uneasy, as though something terrible had come into our lives?


Iain Lawrence’s previous novel for young adult readers, Gemini Summer, won the Governor General’s literary award. Although his latest work, The Séance, will not scale the same heights, the book does carry the unmistakable marks of Lawrence’s quality as an author — intriguing plot, well developed, rounded characters, and liberal sprinklings of unexpected event twists. Readers will especially enjoy the depth of Lawrence’s well-crafted characters.

      Thirteen-year-old Scooter King is the son of Madam King. Scooter’s mother is something of a small scale, local medium who conducts séances at midnight every Wednesday night. Madam King has been a medium for 11 years (and two months, to be precise, according to Scooter). Because he is involved in the deception of his mother’s clients, Scooter maintains considerable reservations about séances and the idea of communication with the deceased. Despite her duplicitous nature, Madam King, however, somehow retains a genuine belief in her own extrasensory abilities.

      The Séance is told in the first person voice from the perspective of Scooter. Lawrence’s fictional historical setting of summer 1926 is both informative and engaging. On the one hand, there is a pervasive naïve innocence to the setting and many of the characters; yet on the other hand, there roam throughout the book, murderers, sceptics and deceitful swindlers. This depth of portrayal adds considerably to the quality and believability of Lawrence’s work.

      Trouble comes to the King household when the world famous escape artist, Harry Houdini, arrives in town. Houdini is determined to expose mediums as frauds. No one in the world is more famous than Harry Houdini, Scooter tells us. Despite Madam King’s intense dislike of Houdini, Scooter is an unabashed admirer. Yet Houdini tells Scooter, “You take money by trickery. What it comes down to is that you’re no different than a pickpocket, and I can’t let that go unchallenged.”

      When Scooter discovers a dead body in Houdini’s Burmese Torture Tank, Scooter becomes involved in the investigation to uncover the identity of the killer. As Scooter’s investigations move forward, suddenly Scooter, himself, becomes a target for the murderer. Meanwhile, Madam King decides to conduct a séance in which she will ask the murdered man to identify the killer.

      The Séance is a well-written, intriguing book from a talented author. Even those of us who are skeptical of such things often hold more than just a passing interest in the idea of séances. For those with such an interest, this book will make an excellent companion piece for readers who enjoyed Marthe Jocelyn’s (2007) How It Happened in Peach Hill. Together, the two books provide entertaining, enjoyable reads and they also provide interesting insights into the workings of mediums.


Gregory Bryan remembers that, as a young child, he was amazed when he sat in on a séance with older siblings and cousins. Considerably less gullible, he now teaches children’s literature at the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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