Reviewers inclined to pigeonhole novels with words like “mystery” or “romance” will have a tough time pegging “Sumner Island.”

Michael Cormier’s first novel is a murder mystery, to be sure. It’s also a romance and a fantasy in which modern-day characters mingle and fall in love with spirits of the dead.

Whatever you choose to call “Sumner Island,” it’s a genuine page-turner that leaves you pondering the blurry edge between reality and what’s beyond.

The setting of Cormier’s book is a fictitious Maine island where the turreted Smythe Hotel has attracted multi-generations of well-to-do summer visitors. But a guest room in one turret of the old hotel is never rented. According to hotel management, it’s a tradition begun out of respect for a beloved Russian princess thought to have been murdered there in 1924.

Island legends about unfortunate Maria Boudreau include alleged ghost sightings. Rumors have persisted for years, popularized by a well-read doctoral thesis by main character Mitch Lambert. He’s a young associate professor from fictional Fowler College.

Using Lambert’s paper as a hook to attract more guests, hotel owners arrange a seance weekend with two noted psychics. Lambert, a scholar and nonbeliever in Sumner Island’s hocus-pocus rumors, decides to attend nevertheless.

Thus begins the perfect set-up for a series of unusual (read: other-worldly) events that unfold throughout the novel.

What I particularly like about “Sumner Island” is the subtle way Cormier introduces fantasy to his book. Using dialogue and observation of little details such as the discovery of an oversized Luna moth, Cormier breaks down our resistance to bizarre happenings that later unfold.

Shortly after his arrival on the island, for instance, Lambert meets an attractive young woman named Wendy who’s there for the seance. Wendy believes that Maria Boudreau’s spirit roams the island. When Lambert objects, she explains her reasoning.

“Wendy took a deep breath and gathered her thoughts,” Cormier writes. ” ‘Well, first of all, you have to believe space and time aren’t necessarily linear, or at least not all the time. If that’s true, then it’s possible our souls don’t go that far away when we die but stay close by, separated from our physical world by some kind of membrane we aren’t aware of.’ “

Furthermore, Wendy tells the professor, it’s a permeable membrane that allows sprits to ” ‘pass through… into the physical world quite easily…’ “

A delightful character in Cormier’s book is a 90-year old island resident named Mr. Arndt. The old man tells a still-resistant Mitch Lambert that his decision to write a thesis about Boudreau was ordained by outside forces. Mitch objects at first, but reconsiders when visions — often preceded by a black flash — reveal the island to him as it looked in 1924.

Slowly, Lambert becomes a believer.

Illustrating his change of heart about Boudreau, Cormier writes from the professor’s new viewpoint: “He was plugged in; the energy of her world flowed right through him. Mr. Arndt had been right: it was no accident that he wrote Maria’s biography. All that research had been just an introductory course, and now he was in graduate school.”

Cormier, a lawyer who practices in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, lives in Portsmouth, N.H. His short stories have won prizes in the “Prime Time Cape Cod” competition and “The New Author.”

If there is a fault to the novel, it has to do with excessive drama in final chapters. Though wonderfully subtle at first, the book loses some ground when paranormal happenings pile up on one another at book’s end.

But “Sumner Island” has wonderful characters. You’ll love seance leaders Horace Leeds and medium Phyllis Church, and you’ll never guess the ending. Hopefully, we’ll see more from Michael Cormier.

 

Lloyd Ferriss is a writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.