In her 2003 bestseller Stiff, feature writer Mary Roach followed a trail of corpses to their curious destinations as medical cadavers, landmine-research subjects, crash-test dummies, and "body farm" plantings for Tennessee forensics students. Her latest applies a similarly irreverent, Ripley's-esque approach to what used to be in those bodies. In Spook, she goes on the spiritualist and parapsychological rounds to find evidence of spirits, souls, ectoplasmic manifestations, post-death communication, haunts, and temporarily-dead hospital patients hovering near the operating-room ceiling. Short of the Ultimate Trip (the one with the light and the pearly gates), it's about as entertaining a journey out of the realm of the living as anybody could want.

Roach wisely decided to limit herself to scientific investigations, and anyone wondering whether it's possible to apply rigorous methodology to entities somewhere between natural and supernatural will come away impressed with the honesty of some of Roach's subjects. She talks to her fair share of true believers seeking confirmation through science; for example, celebrity researcher Gary Schwarz of the University of Arizona's Human Energy Systems Laboratory is quick to praise the star mediums he's studied (like John Edward of TV's Crossing Over), and equally quick to explain away anomalous results. When a medium insists that she's getting the letter K connected to Roach's mother, Roach responds negatively before dubiously offering that her own middle name is Catherine. "You are such a jerk! You expect it to be precise!" Schwarz responds.

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But when Roach travels with an Indian researcher looking for clear-cut cases of reincarnation (as opposed to financial opportunism), or subjects herself to electromagnetic fields to see if they cause a "haunted" effect, or waits almost hopefully for conclusive reports on a patient's near-death experience, she delivers an appealingly humane vision. Spirit survival is all about hope, and hope clings, unacknowledged, to the test tube. Although the confidence of earlier generations of researchers—those who waited for souls to be captured in vacuum tubes, or deciphered voices in radio static, or watched for a scale's needle to jump backward at the instant of death—was misplaced, Roach and her researchers aren't willing to abandon "the discarnate" to the metaphysicians. It's what we don't know, not what we can't know, that turns out to be the most revealing story of this equally credulous and science-obsessed age.