by Cynthia Chow
& Barry H. Wiley
Halloween seemed like a perfect time to review a mystery novel involving Spiritualists. Not only do we have a review of A Spirit of Fraud, but also an interesting guest post by Barry about writing this type of book. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win an ebook copy of Spirit of Fraud.
A Spirit of Fraud By Barry H. Wiley
Review by Cynthia Chow
Although we may think that terrorism is a modern phenomenon, it existed long before the recent incidences. In 1876, the United States was weakened by the Civil War and unhappy factions, still teeming with resentment, planning behind the scenes, to take over the country and destroy its oblivious president.
Led by Lord John Acre, the Ancient and Exemplary Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross has placed loyal members within the administration of President Grant and lay in wait. Believing the Anti-Christ is prophesized to arise in 1876 and that only the British Empire can stand against it, Acre has enacted a plan to destroy the American government and give its power back to the British.
One of the few savvy enough to detect the nefarious actions of the GRC is a woman with her own history of crafting deceptions and illusions. As a child, Annie Eva Fay was sold by her father into a virtual slavehood and passed from family to family until she found her calling amidst a home of Spiritualists. From then on, Annie perfected her talent for faking séances. She eventually married con man Henry Melville Fay and they became a renowned team with her act as a medium.
When the novice young agent Aaron Levin is sent to expose Annie as a fraud, he inadvertently stumbles into GRC workings. Annie saves his life, and in doing so, gains an ally within the famous National Detective Agency led by Robert Pinkerton. Even with a spy within their agency they are the best hope the United States has against a scheme to corrupt the presidential election and begin the downfall of the nation.
Fans of intricate thrillers in the style of The DaVinci Code will be sure to enjoy this complex and evolving novel that mixes historical figures with a conspiratorial web of intrigue. Annie is fascinating as the author reveals the techniques used to manipulate and influence her marks into believing her prophecies and her abilities.
This is a novel that demands constant attention to its many characters and complex plot, but readers will be rewarded with historical facts and fascinating figures.
Plotting the Impossible
By Barry H Wiley
I performed a mind reading act while in college. Relax. I was a fake. I made interesting money and learned a valuable lesson. People, intelligent well-educated people, men and women, will believe whatever they need to believe – almost regardless of any contrary evidence. I was a seventeen year old fake mindreader that people, years and years older, were asking to tell their fortunes. I just couldn’t do that, though I knew the jargon and the routine, and though I could have tripled my mentalist income if I had. The downside was not worth it.
Years later, I learned another aspect of that lesson while doing volunteer work in a local maximum-security prison when I came to know three con men, and, once gaining their trust, we discussed setting up cons, short cons, long cons and what the real difference was between the thinking and the risks involved. They were experienced cons who could fake sincerity with the best of the politicians. One night as I was leaving, and we had come to know each other, I asked the obvious question: “I’m going home and you are going back to your 5×7 cell. What went wrong?”
Though naturally their details were different, the bottom line was the same. What had brought each of them down was coming to believe their own con, to prefer the fake personae, the fake story to their own reality. As one explained, when you become the wrong person, you stop watching the edges of the con, stop watching your back, and the holes in your story become “pathetically obvious”.
Thus, in my writing, non-fiction and fiction, the paranormal is all fake, all a con. I wrote the biography of the woman whom Harry Houdini called “… the greatest female mystifier.” Detective Allan Pinkerton called her, “… a woman possessing a terribly fascinating power and capable of any devilish human accomplishment.” That was blonde, blue-eyed, only five feet tall, Anna Eva Fay. (Her biography is The Indescribable Phenomenon from Hermetic Press.) She was the quintessential con woman who went from a condition of near slavery in northeastern Ohio to becoming the most acclaimed spirit medium in the U.S., convincing prominent scientists in the US and UK that she was the real thing, that she could project “a non-human force at a distance.”
When the profits from the ghosts started declining in 1894, Annie went on the vaudeville stage to become acclaimed as a greater showman than Houdini. In her act, she repeated some of what she had done in the séance room, then Annie stole the mind-reading act of magician, S.S. Baldwin, to add it to her séance material and then performed it better than he did, as Baldwin publicly admitted. Annie died in 1927 at 76 in her own bed, the wealthiest citizen of Melrose, MA. Her home, Heathman Manor, had seen Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and others who came to consult her on the spirits, real and fake. At the time of her death, Anna Eva Fay was eulogized in the New York Times. Annie, throughout her 48 year career, never believed her own con.
So, when you are plotting the impossible in your story or novel, do you make the paranormal powers displayed fake or real? The problem with doing it “real” is to be able to make your protagonist productively vulnerable, i.e., does the vulnerability advance the plot, is he or she someone who makes believable mistakes and legitimately suffers from them. Be careful as scattering too many chunks of Kryptonite about as your plot eventually becomes obvious, silly … and dull.
I knew Walter B. Gibson who created the character of The Shadow, one of the greatest mystery protagonists in the genre. Walter created the Shadow as highly intelligent, relentless, ruthless, with an astonishing range of bizarre knowledge – but never invisible. (His real name was not Lamont Cranston.) When The Shadow went on radio with Orson Welles as his initial incarnation, he was not only invisible but could also read minds. As was pointed out at the time with some humor, the only thing between the crooks and justice was the commercials as with those powers, the Shadow could never lose. When it was realized that a super-Shadow was dull, the Shadow lost his mentalist powers and gained Margo Lane. A great trade-off! Walter didn’t need Margo Lane for his Shadow novels, but with her growing radio popularity, Walter shrugged and told me he had no choice, his readers were adamant – but his Shadow still was not invisible.
When I began my Adventures in Second Sight series, I modeled my teen-age heroine, Kyame Piddington, after Anna Eva Fay. At the age of eleven and desperately trying to replace her dead mother in the family second sight act (two-person mind reading), Kyame learns hard lessons as she deals with hostile audiences, bank robbers, jadoo-wallahs, murderous crystal gazers, along with being rejected by society as only “a theater girl,” and dealing with the disturbing prediction of a New York Chinese astrologer, that she had the soul of an implacable assassin. All in the course of which, learning from her father and the people she encounters, Kyame comes to understand how to sell her con, to become real to the people as she and her father travel across the American West in 1890-95.
At sixteen in San Francisco, she faces the master of the Bing On tong who had literally butchered her father, her own death only a few seconds away, yet it is Kyame who disappears from the master’s windowless office, leaving him dead with a silver knife in his heart, and with the only door still barred from the inside. To the hatchet-men of the tong, the young white woman should have been dead, but now they believed she was a tulku, a Tibetan occult wraith who can move through solid walls and locked doors to kill, and then vanish. Kyame had sold her con to her toughest audience!
I love vampires (my favorites are by Scarlet Dean), and I have sat on the Bram Stoker Memorial Bench on the bluff overlooking Whitby Harbor, with Whitby Abby in the distance … and Dracula lurking in the back of my mind. But for me as a writer, a fake paranormal is more challenging, more intriguing, more fun and the readers can actually go out and duplicate the wonder they have just read.
Just don’t believe it.
To enter to win an ebook copy of A Spirit of Fraud, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Fraud,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen November 1, 2014. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
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