‘Seance Infernal’ follows a mystery in the reel world

If, while reading a novel, you came across the line, “I love the smell of nitrate in the morning,” would you know the reel reference? If you automatically substituted “napalm” for “nitrate” and thought of “Apocalypse Now,” the book “Seance Infernale” might be for you.

The novel about a movie memorabilia dealer charged with locating what could be the first film ever made is salted with actor and character names, motion picture titles and visits to archives and (briefly) a store stocked with cinematic collectibles.

If “Seance Infernale” were a movie, no one would describe it as breezy or family friendly. It’s an ingenious but dense, inordinately complicated mystery built around abhorrent impulses, loved ones and treasures lost and found, and a series of riddles that initially seem impossible to solve.

But if Alex Whitman is going to find a film called “Seance Infernale,” he must revisit ghosts of people and places, especially Edinburgh. Whitman is a movie memorabilia dealer who is “part archaeologist, part detective for anything related to film,” which is why a wealthy collector hires him in October 2002 to find “Seance Infernale” by Augustin Sekuler.

It could be the first film ever made and proof that Sekuler — and not the Lumiere brothers or Thomas Edison — was the father of motion pictures.

Sekuler (a fictional character inspired by pioneering inventor Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince) was a French inventor who vanished from a train in 1890 and whose body and luggage were never located. Edison filed a patent for a working moving-pictures camera a year after Sekuler disappeared, prompting Whitman’s client to cynically suggest, “History is not written by the victors; it is written by ruthless patent thieves.”

Whitman’s search for the possibly mythical movie forces him to revisit the disappearance more than a decade earlier of his 5-year-old daughter. That shattering loss humanizes Whitman, who trades on the notion that “there is no man alive who will not give in, as long as it is the right temptation offered at the right time.” A wad of bills pries open doors and mouths, he finds.

There is nothing sympathetic (or appealing in the manner of a Hannibal Lecter) about another character, a perverted serial killer whose horrific handiwork is described in such vivid, disturbing detail that you may want to skip ahead or stop reading.

“Seance Infernale” weaves story strands from past and almost-present and keeps the action moving briskly as one cerebral clue leads to another and then another. In that way, it becomes like a 3-D or 4-D puzzle with touches of malice, magic and mysticism.

It’s the debut novel of Jonathan Skariton, a Greek-born resident of Kent, England, who works as a cognitive neuroscientist for the largest fragrance manufacturer in the world, according to his bio on the book jacket.

He obviously is whip-smart and knowledgeable, name-dropping Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” film, which tellingly examined the nature of fear and film itself and the long-lost “London After Midnight” starring Lon Chaney along with details about film frame rates or even what a high-intensity fire can do to the skull. “Kaboom” is the answer.

Mr. Skariton uses some typographical elements in his storytelling and fills in some (not all) blanks in notes at the end of the book. The very last one provides a postscript about the cinematic chase that starts in Los Angeles and ends 5,000-plus miles away with a dramatic, film-worthy flourish. Light, mindless reading it is not.

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