No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, November 10, 2017

2017/90: That Old Black Magic -- Cathi Unsworth

"Used to be the Variety circuit, before the war," said Lexy. "Now all the beaches are full of mines and barbed wire. The people who’re left there aren’t having a good time any more. Vulnerable to Jerry attack from the sea and where the Luftwaffe get rid of all their unused bombs on their way home. Easy prey for spook racketeers." [loc 1818]

That Old Black Magic (review copy received from Netgalley in exchange for this honest review) begins in January 1941, when medium Helen Duncan apparently channels the spirit of a woman who is being murdered in a wintry wood. Later that same month, the hapless Karl Kohl, on a spying mission from Germany, breaks his ankle and is captured by the security services. He doesn't tell them much -- but what he does confess is enough to involve MI5, and in particular the shadowy section known as 'Triple-U' -- witches, warlocks and wizards.

Detective Sergeant Ross Spooner, who grew up in a 'rare and occult' bookshop in Aberdeen, is assigned to trace the woman who was Karl Kohl's contact. His investigation takes him into a bohemian world of musicians, actors and circus performers -- and, later, into the equally theatrical world of seances and spiritualism. He meets historical characters such as ghost hunter Harry Price, journalist Hannen Swaffer and medium Helen Duncan: the latter was the last person to be tried under the 1735 Witchcraft Act in the UK, in 1944, and though Spooner is well aware of the trickery behind her performance, he also experiences the inexplicable.

This novel ties together historical events (Helen Duncan's trial, the bombing of arms factories in Birmingham, the discovery by four boys of a woman's bones in a hollow tree) with fiction. Spooner is a good protagonist, at once sceptical and eager to believe, determined to root out potential traitors, and beguiled by the mysterious musician Anna. What I found most interesting, though, was Unsworth's depictions of the spiritualist circuit, and the theatrical world, in World War II.

The narrative did jump around a lot: typically, Spooner would be walking somewhere; then he'd reflect on the circumstances that prompted his walk; then he'd get to his destination. A plethora of dream sequences, too (and Spooner is prone to bad dreams). There's a sense of fading, rather than closure, at the end of the book: I didn't find the ending wholly satisfactory. And I sometimes felt that too much information and too many subplots were being shoehorned in. Overall, though, this is an interesting, well-researched and well-paced read.

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