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Originally published Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 3:02 AM

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‘The Ghost of the Mary Celeste’: a haunted 19th century

Valerie Martin’s forceful historical novel “The Ghost of the Mary Celeste” combines a nautical mystery, spiritualism in the 19th century and a young Arthur Conan Doyle to tell a multilayered story.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘The Ghost of the Mary Celeste’

by Valerie Martin

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 306 pp., $25.95

In 1872 the Mary Celeste, a merchant ship, was found sailing unmanned in the Atlantic Ocean. After extensive investigation failed to determine what happened or the whereabouts of the crew, speculation took over. No less an eminence than Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who created Sherlock Holmes, kept speculation alive by writing his own first-person, make-believe account of the ship’s fate — one that a substantial number of readers accepted as the real thing.

Valerie Martin’s “The Ghost of the Mary Celeste” continues this legacy, offering its own fictional version of what may have occurred. But the book is only tangentially about the ship. Rather, as Martin did with such erotic force in her prizewinning novel “Property,” this latest novel convincingly delivers a portrait of an era — and, in this case, a movement in which the line between mystic and con artist was very thin.

In the latter half of the 19th century, many Americans were literally mesmerized by a practice called Spiritualism. Through mediums who were mostly women, its followers communicated — or, at least, believed they were communicating — with their dearly departed and a world apart from conventional religion and rational thought.

It was a time not unlike our own, with technological innovation speeding the pace of change. Women were restive in their constricted roles. But an added anxiety was the likelihood of early death from accidents or disease; black was the favored shade of dress because a state of mourning was so commonplace. Opportunity was ripe for those who claimed access to “the other side.”

“The Ghost of the Mary Celeste” juxtaposes a Spiritualist medium who calls herself Violet Petra with a skeptical journalist named Phoebe Grant to explore this crosscurrent of 19th-century thought. Phoebe tracks Violet through a number of homes and illustrious benefactors along the Eastern Seaboard who seem to acquire her like a family pet. By the end Phoebe is sympathetic to her plight but convinced that she’s more clever than clairvoyant.

“She had drifted into her present life, or been herded into it,” the journalist concludes, “whereas I had manufactured mine by a concentrated effort of the will, wresting a career from those who would have been equally content to see me fail as succeed.”

Sherlock Holmes creator Doyle also plays a prominent role in the story: Leaving out the fact that the writer became a devotee of Spiritualism in his later years, Martin shows him as a snooty young man who finds Americans a “credulous race; they wrote letters to fictional characters, they coined religions as if there were a shortage on the market.”

Doyle arrives from England as a supercilious doubting Thomas and doesn’t know quite what to make of Violet. He insists she travel to London to have her psychic powers tested.

“The Ghost of the Mary Celeste” hopscotches across decades and points of view. It’s embellished with diary entries and ship logs that further “authenticate” the story. Fact and fiction meld so neatly that it seems as if every character is drawn from real life — a compliment to Martin’s able research, psychological acuity and verbal finesse. Given such favorable winds, the novel — unlike the Mary Celeste — sails home with flying colors.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland book critic.

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