Sarah Penner delivers a spirited mystery in ‘London Seance Society’

The Tampa Bay area author’s second bestseller explores spiritualism, sex and murder in Victorian England.
"The London Seance Society" is the second novel by Tampa Bay area resident Sarah Penner.
"The London Seance Society" is the second novel by Tampa Bay area resident Sarah Penner. [ Laura Foote ]
Published March 30

Sarah Penner’s 2021 debut novel, “The Lost Apothecary,” hit on a winning formula with its richly detailed gothic mystery, set in 18th century London and centering on the lives of women. It climbed bestseller lists, was translated into 40 languages and is now in development at Fox as a TV series.

Penner, who lives in the Tampa Bay area, sticks with that template for her engrossing second novel, “The London Seance Society,” and why not: The book debuted this month at No. 7 on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list.

“The London Seance Society,” set about a century later than Penner’s first book, also features strong female characters trying to find their place in a very much male-dominated world. In 1873, London was at the height of the Victorian era, and spiritualism and seances were all the fashion. For some, the quest to speak with the dead was a parlor game; for others, it was a desperate expression of personal grief.

For Lenna Wickes, the main character of “The London Seance Society,” it’s the latter, although Lenna is no true believer. She’s a bright young woman with a burgeoning interest in science — the era’s flurry of discoveries of fossil remains thrills her with a new understanding of the world.

She has argued about spiritualism, mostly good-naturedly, with her younger sister, vivacious Evie, who’s studying to become a medium. Evie is all in, Lenna skeptical. Until the night she finds Evie murdered in the garden of the small London hotel run by their parents.

That’s how Lenna finds herself, as the novel opens, as a participant at a hair-raising seance late one night in an abandoned chateau in Paris during a snowstorm, with the parents of another murdered young woman and a legendary medium — Evie’s former teacher — named Vaudeline D’Allaire.

Vaudeline has a very particular specialty as a medium. The spirits she summons and speaks for are “not old grandmothers in white nightgowns, lives lived long, stalking through corridors. These were not the casualties of war, valiant men who’d known what they were getting themselves into.”

The souls she speaks for are murder victims whose killers have gotten away. She holds her seances, for which she is very well paid, only at the scene of the murder — hence that eerie chateau.

Vaudeline left London under mysterious circumstances before Evie’s death, but Lenna has traveled to Paris to take up her sister’s studies. She wants to learn Vaudeline’s methods so she can find her sister’s killer, but she’s still unwilling to take the afterlife on faith — she also wants proof that ghosts exist. It’s difficult, though, for Lenna not to fall under the sway of the commanding, beautiful Vaudeline.

In addition to her studies with Vaudeline, Evie had also been involved with the London Seance Society, a gentlemen’s club devoted to spiritualist arts. Women, of course, are forbidden to join it or even attend its lectures, but Evie seems to have had some sort of connection.

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That connection takes on much more importance when Vaudeline gets news that her friend Mr. Volckman, the founder and president of the society, has also been murdered — on the same night that Evie died. Mr. Morley, the head of the society’s department of spiritualism, writes to ask Vaudelaire to return to London to solve the crime.

Most of the book is narrated in third person from Lenna’s point of view, but it’s interspersed with Morley’s first-person chapters. He explains how the society is run, including his own job of scheduling its mediums for readings and collecting the fees.

He also fills the reader in on when and where Volckman died: during a party at Morley’s house, in a subterranean wine cellar.

It’s in that cellar a seance is planned. But in the meantime, Lenna and Vaudeline are hidden away in the society’s townhouse, because Morley believes Vaudeline is still in danger from that unspoken threat that sent her to Paris.

Lenna finds out much more about Evie’s last months, but each answer brings a tide of new questions. The men of the society are not inclined to share much with Lenna and Vaudeline, so they go to women for information about Evie’s and Volckman’s deaths, from genteel widows to sex workers at a brothel.

Penner weaves together hypnotic seance scenes and explosive action as the potential reasons for Evie’s death multiply, and the number of people Lenna can trust shrinks. As “The London Seance Society” escalates, some of the living become more terrifying than the dead.

The London Seance Society cover
The London Seance Society cover [ Park Row Books ]

The London Seance Society

By Sarah Penner

Park Row Books, 352 pages, $30

Meet the author

Tombolo Books presents Sarah Penner discussing and signing “The London Seance Society” at 7 p.m. April 5 at Coastal Creative, 2201 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Tickets $30 plus tax for one admission and one copy of the book, $36 plus tax for two admissions and one copy, at