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It's 1956, and Lee Plunkett has taken over the family business as a private investigator despite his reluctance to follow in his father's footsteps. When murder intrudes on a group of ghost seekers, Lee is asked to solve the case by a cop on the verge of retirement. At the urging of his perpetual fiancée Audrey, Lee enlists the help of Mr. O'Nelligan, a scholarly Irishman with a keen eye for solving mysteries. The duo is drawn into a murder investigation involving the "Spectricator," a machine designed to communicate with the dead. Soon, Plunkett and O'Nelligan are knee-deep in a suspect pool that includes a surly medium, a former speakeasy queen, a mysterious Spanish widow, and a whole slew of eccentric servants. Engaging, charming, and smart, The Séance Society by Michael Nethercott is a fresh take on the traditional mystery genre for readers who love original characters, witty dialogue, and a great whodunit.
"Nethercott's debut sparkles with a mix of W.B. Yeats and Elvis quotations, well-placed red herrings, and an endearing trio of protagonists."―Library Journal
"This clever series opener offers a mid-century take on the traditional drawing-room mystery...There is a sweet charm to this mystery, ensuring that readers will want to see more from O'Nelligan and Plunkett."―Booklist
"A classically styled Holmesian whodunit."
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MICHAEL NETHERCOTT's work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, Gods and Monsters, and Crimestalkers Casebook. He is a past winner of The Black Orchid Novella Award, The Vermont Playwrights Award, and The Nor'easter Play Writing Contest. He lives with his wife in Guilford, Vermont.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A word here about Mr. O’Nelligan.
I first met the man roughly a year prior to the Otherworld’s Fair. When Audrey introduced us, he was sunk in a massive armchair in his book-jammed living room, a volume on his lap, a pipe in his hand, and a calm smile on his lips.
“Many welcomes, Lee Plunkett,” he said. “I’ve been longing to meet Audrey’s lad.”
Having crested thirty, I didn’t really consider myself a “lad,” but I didn’t contradict him.
He took a draw on his pipe and went on. “Bespectacled and reedy as you are, you bring to mind a fledgling Yeats.”
Not knowing if I’d just been complimented or maligned, I grinned stupidly and shook his hand. I gathered he was referring to my round eyeglasses and spare body, but had no idea what a “yates” might be.
He must have noted my confusion, for he added, “I refer to William Butler Yeats, the greatest of Celtic bards. The name Plunkett is an Irish one. Are you not familiar with the island’s best poet?”
“I’m a few generations removed from my roots,” I explained, “and my father wasn’t one for poetry. Can’t say I know much about it.”
Mr. O’Nelligan gazed at me in gentle pity and trotted out some Yeats.
“Wine comes in at the mouth
And Love comes in at the eye.
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.”
Then he offered us not wine but tea and blarneyed on about one thing or another for half an hour.
As Audrey and I were taking our leave, the Irishman gripped my hand and told me, “Remember what they say, Lee Plunkett—only the mountains never meet again. Do you know what that expression means?”
“Afraid I don’t,” I answered.
“Nor I, but I like the ring of it.”
I must admit that, after that first visit, I wrote the old fellow off as an odd duck.
Born in County Kerry, Mr. O’Nelligan had a colorful career history that included not only actor and teacher but train conductor, bricklayer, door-to-door saleman, and who knows what else. Also, he had fought in his homeland’s civil war back in the twenties, though this seemed to be an episode he preferred to forget. Once, when Audrey had asked him why he wore a beard in these modern times, the old Irishman had muttered something about a knife scar and changed the subject. He had immigrated to New York with his wife back in ’44. Widowed after a decade, he moved up to Thelmont, our modest-sized Connecticut town, for a life of books and conversation. He lived in a small pine-crowded house three doors down from Audrey and her parents. Audrey and he had become fast friends, uniting over the joys of well-brewed tea and leisurely chatter. I, on the other hand, after that first meeting, never expected to have much to do with the gentleman.
But you just never know. As our acquaintance grew, Mr. O’Nelligan became an unofficial partner of sorts in Plunkett and Son Investigators, of which I—the Son—was the only surviving member. My father, Buster, had taken me on in ’54 to give direction to my drifting life, but had died of a heart attack two months before I met Mr. O’Nelligan. In that first year following Dad’s death, I really hadn’t done much to champion the family business, struggling just to handle the infidelity and missing-object jobs. Then, on Audrey’s suggestion, the keen-witted Irishman eventually stepped in to offer his assistance on a couple of cases. By the time of the Otherworld Murders, Mr. O’Nelligan had been on board for several months and had already proved himself invaluable. Annoyingly, he wouldn’t accept a single dime for his help.
“I’ve set aside adequate funds to sustain my silver years,” he’d argue whenever I suggested compensation. “I’m just grateful for the chance to exercise my aging cerebrum.” Infuriating.
* * *
AN ARTICLE ON the front page of the Thelmont Times, December 1, 1956, edition, ran as follows:
TREXLER LLOYD DIES IN FREAK ACCIDENT
Braywick, Conn.—Trexler Lloyd, noted inventor and entrepreneur, was electrocuted yesterday evening, November 30, while operating one of his own inventions, in what has been described as a demonstration of spiritualism. Lloyd’s interest in the supernatural was highlighted last month by the Otherworld’s Fair, an event that he sponsored featuring various mediums, mystics, and practitioners of the occult. His death occurred at about 8:10 P.M. at his home in Braywick while in the company of several associates including Dr. C. R. Kemple, a self-professed medium, and Miss Brenda “Sassafras” Miller, former actress and celebrity. Mrs. Constanza Lloyd, the deceased’s wife, was also present, though not at the moment of death.
The device that electrocuted Lloyd was known as a “Spectricator” and, according to witnesses, was invented by Lloyd for the purpose of accessing “the death dimension.” No reliable evidence has been presented as to its effectiveness, other than the unfortunate part it played in Lloyd’s own passing. Police speculate that a fault in the device’s electronics caused the fatal mishap. More information will be forthcoming.
Audrey and I were halfway through a Saturday breakfast at the Bugle Boy Diner. She finished reading aloud the article and sighed. “Doesn’t get much weirder than that, does it?”
“Not much,” I agreed, not knowing then that more weirdness was due, and that I would have a ringside seat for it.
Audrey was looking fetching that morning, and I sure hope I told her so. Her wavy brown hair, cut fairly short in the modern style, had a nice bounce to it, and her button nose never looked so buttony. The scarf around her slender neck, red with yellow polka dots, was one of my favorites and, in my unrefined opinion, always gave her a bit of dash.
“Trexler Lloyd was a strange man,” she said, “but a necessary one, I’d say.”
“The world needs inventors … creators. It’s how we progress.”
I talked through a mouthful of muffin. “Progress is overrated. Everyone’s always going on about rocket ships and robots and such, but there’s no need to rush the clock.”
She gave me a scowl. “No one will ever accuse you of rushing any timepieces.”
I’d led myself right into that one. I knew, of course, what she was referring to: our long-term engagement. We’d pledged ourselves in the spring of ’54, and here it was the tail end of 1956 with no official wedding day in sight. We seemed to be in contention with The Ed Sullivan Show for the longest-running variety series. There was always one obstacle or another to keep us from storming the aisle, lack of cash being the preferred excuse. Even now, when I’d actually been able to set aside a fair amount due to a couple successful cases, I still was hemming and hawing. At twenty-eight, Audrey was more than ready to commit. I, on the other hand, just couldn’t seem to make that great leap. Soon, I kept telling both of us. Very s oon.
I retreated to the safety of Lloyd’s demise. “Well, the man’s bought his own ticket to spiritland.”
“That’s a rather callous remark, isn’t it?”
“Probably. But it’s ironic that someone who’d put so much effort into seeking out the company of ghosts—”
“Should turn himself into one with some stupid mistake?”
“ Now who’s being callous?”
“I’m not callous—I’m sensible. He shouldn’t have been fooling around with untested electronic devices, even if he was a genius. Who ever heard of a Spectricator, anyway?”
I shrugged. “Certainly not me, but then I’m not exactly one of our nation’s great scientific minds.”
“I heartily concur,” Audrey said oh-so-sweetly.
“Gee, thanks. Believe me, though, it’s all bull. All this ghostly, bump-in-the-night malarkey is just meant to separate some poor bozos from their paychecks.”
“Now, how can you know that? People like Trexler Lloyd and Dr. Kemple may be in touch with things we can’t even imagine. Like that story about my grandmother. Is it really so impossible that the deceased might be able to contact us?”
“In a word, yes.”
Audrey tossed a balled-up napkin at my head, missing by an inch. “You’re so sure of yourself, aren’t you, mister?”
Truth be told, there wasn’t a whole lot in the world that I was, in fact, one hundred percent sure of. So when something that I did feel reasonably confident of—such as, let’s say, the iron-clad finality of death—I liked to stick by it.
“Nonetheless, it’s too bad Trexler Lloyd perished.” I said. “Even if he was reckless with his hardware. Do you agree, Miss Sensible?”
Audrey tried her luck with a second napkin ball. This time she connected.
* * *
FOUR DAYS LATER, as I was strolling up Audrey’s walkway to pick her up for a matinee, Mr. O’Nelligan intercepted me with a firm hand on my chest.
“Ah, Lee, m’lad! I heard you were coming to fetch dear Audrey, so I lay in wait. You can commence your courting in a moment, but first I’ve some news.”
“The good kind?”
“At present, that isn’t for me to judge. We do have a case, though. I received a telephone call not a half hour ago.”
“You did?” This was unusual. Normally, I was the one who fielded new clients.
“I did. And it’s regarding a man of much import. Unfortunately, a dead one.”
Somehow, before he even said the name, I knew, just knew, that it was Trexler Lloyd.
Per Mr. O’Nelligan’s arrangements, he and I went to my office that evening to meet with George Agnelli, the man who had contacted him. When I say office, I don’t mean to suggest anything stately or slick or, to be honest, even professional. It was the same narrow room where my father had started his business fifteen years before, and somehow I hadn’t gotten around to making changes. Once, Audrey had tried to describe it to someone but ended up halting midsentence and sighing, “Actually, there’s nothing to describe.” That summed things up pretty smartly. There were four murky green walls, one curtainless window, a dinged-up wooden desk, a typewriter, a telephone, a table lamp, a cranky swivel chair, a couple of other chairs begging for some varnish, and a gray metal cabinet with stubborn drawers. The one piece of decoration that Dad had provided was a framed portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, of whom he’d often admiringly declare, “That guy had buckles! Real buckles!” I’ve no idea what that even meant. The only reason I could afford an office at all was because old Yowler Yarr, the landlord, had been a crony of Dad’s who kept the rent down at a pauper’s fee. As it was, I’d had to let the part-time secretary go, so who knows how much business I’d lost while the phone jingled away unanswered in the empty space.
George Agnelli arrived promptly at the agreed-upon time. Strangely enough, according to what he’d told my colleague, Agnelli was a professional sleuth himself, a Braywick police detective nearing the end of his career. His sixty-odd years—and perhaps the burdens of his profession—had settled heavily into the deep crevices of his face. His gray hair was thinning, and his eyes had a weary, basset-hound-like droop to them.
I started the conversation. “It’s pretty unusual to have one detective hire another.”
“Sure, I know that,” Agnelli said. “But there are reasons…” Then he stopped and, for a moment, I thought he wasn’t going to give any.
“Reasons?” I reached for my notepad.
He blew out a mouthful of air, like he was dispelling some little demon. “Can’t believe I’m doing this. It’s just that it’s the end of my career, see? Thirty-eight years. You want things to end clean. You want to slip off your badge and feel it wasn’t all for nothing. Because you’ve been a good cop and tried to play it square. Maybe you’ve made mistakes, screwed up a case or two when you were younger. But you want your last run to be a good one, you understand?’
I really didn’t. “Why don’t we backtrack? What led you to seek out Mr. O’Nelligan?”
“Okay, I started to go into this on the phone, but he wanted to wait till you were in the mix. He said you’re the boss here.”
I wanted to say, In name only, but let it go. “Something about the Otherworld’s Fair, right?”
“Yes, I was there last month when O’Nelligan here stood up and talked about the feast day … what’s it called?”
“Samhain,” Mr. O’Nelligan answered.
“That’s it. I remember that gal with you said you were detectives, and that stuck with me. O’Nelligan seemed like a sharp fellow, so when I decided I needed help, he came to mind. Since I’m going behind the department’s back, I wanted someone from out of the area. Plus, it felt like fate in a way, the fact that he was there the one time I saw Trexler Lloyd alive.”
“Why were you there?” I asked. “At the Otherworld’s Fair.”
Agnelli looked down at his hands. “My wife passed away last spring. Well, with all this stuff about spirits that Trexler put out, I just … Oh, hell, I don’t know. A fellow misses his wife, he gets a little lost, maybe.”
“I understand,” Mr. O’Nelligan said, and I knew he did. “Now, you just said ‘the one time I saw Trexler Lloyd alive,’ implying, perhaps, that you’ve encountered him dead?”
“Right. We were the ones called out Friday night, my partner and me. By the time we got there, Lloyd was sprawled out cold in that cloak of his, and Felix Emmitt, the coroner, was already closing up shop. That crazy apparatus was still sparking, and Emmitt had declared it death by electrocution.”
“That’s how the papers wrote it up,” I said.
“Sure, that’s how everyone wrote it up.”
“But you have your doubts?”
Agnelli looked pained. “You don’t put in thirty-eight years without developing an eye for something wrong. We barely got to glance at the body before that Kemple nut starts yelling at us not to disturb Lloyd, that we’ll muddle his death energies or some such nonsense. Plus, with Sassafras Miller sobbing up a storm, and the coroner saying it’s a done deal and packing up the corpse, we didn’t have much time to take it all in. We interviewed the witnesses afterward—Lloyd’s inner circle and a handful of clients who’d come hoping to contact their loved ones—but everyone chalked the death up to faulty wiring.”
“But not you and your partner?”
“Forget Tommy Bells. He’s a kid, twenty-six, who only made detective a year ago. Thinks he knows it all, but doesn’t. No, Tommy took everything at face value.”
“So, what made you suspicious?”
Agnelli blew out another demon. “Well, first of all, Felix Emmitt being there.”
“Why wouldn’t the local coroner be on hand?”
“Because he didn’t just arrive after the fact in his official capacity. He was already there. Emmitt was in the room when Trexler Lloyd died.”
No one spoke for a moment as that sank in.
“Did you get an explanation out of him?” I finally asked.
“He said he was there as a client, that it was just a coincidence.”
Mr. O’Nelligan clicked his tongue. “Be wary of coincidences, for every vine has its seed.”
“Exactly,” I concurred, not really sure what I was concurring with. “So, were you able to follow up on examining the body?”
Agnelli looked deflated. “No. By that next morning, Lloyd had been cremated.”
“Overnight?” Mr. O’Nelligan tilted back his head. “That seems quite hasty.”
“That’s what I thought,” Agnelli said, “but apparently Lloyd had made it clear that in the event of his death, he wanted it done immediately. Even had something legal drawn up to that effect.”
I paused in my note-taking. “But this was an untimely death. Wouldn’t the authorities hold up the cremation until everything had been sorted out?”
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