March 2004

Jessa Crispin


Inamorata by Joseph Gangemi

The easiest way to describe a book is to call it "The New _________." "The New Lovely Bones." "The New John Grisham." Now Inamorata is being hailed (mostly by its publisher) as "The New Alienist." In many ways, yes, Inamorata is similar to The Alienist. It's an historical mystery with real life historical figures as characters. The books are set within 20 to 30 years of one another. They both have odd titles that pique the browser's interest. But what Inamorata is lacking is compelling writing and a story that, in the end, makes sense.

It's the 1920's and the Scientific American has announced a cash prize to anyone who can prove the existence of the spiritual world. Martin Finch, a Harvard graduate student, is hired by his professor to assist him on the judging committee. His job quickly becomes that of debunker. He develops methods to test the mediums' methods and prove they are cheats. Just when they had given up hope on ever finding someone to award the prize, a letter arrives regarding Mina Crawley. She has evidently convinced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of her powers (not a difficult feat; Doyle fell for many Spiritualism hoaxes in his day), and she finally agrees to allow the Scientific American panel to sit in on one of her sessions. They are witnesses to a very convincing performance by a spirit named Walter who bites a panel member, crushes the table, rearranges furniture, and has an odd fondness for the song, "Yes, We Have No Bananas." But could Mina be doing all of this? Perhaps the bite was merely an odd pinch with Mina's toes? Could she throw her voice? Is her husband in on it as well?

The problem is, it's hard to care. Martin's efforts to debunk Mina's sessions grow repetitious, as every time he decides he could have an explanation, it only means another session, pretty much the same as the last, except now Mina is gagged or now Mina's feet are tied to her chair. None of the characters are fleshed out. Each is a stereotype of some sort or another, the Racist or the Blustery Irishman. The language is dull and metaphor-heavy. There is a tedious conversation between the panel members about oysters putting "lead in your pencil, kid," and then responses about which waitresses they'd "write," and then the metaphor is carried even further over the next few pages. In the end, there's no big reveal, no big pay off, just an ambiguous ending. For a book that didn't have much going for it in the beginning or middle, an ambiguous ending is even more of a betrayal. At least have a point.

Every good book that is unexpectedly successful brings with it the hangers-on with less imagination. The Alienist was published nearly ten years ago, and still the imitators are attempting bestsellers. One can only hope that this book will be the last nail in the coffin and a new intelligent and inventive book can emerge.

Inamorata by Joseph Gangemi
ISBN: 0670032794
319 Pages