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Thursday, March 8, 2018

That Old Black Magic

Title: That Old Black Magic
Author: Cathi Unsworth
Publisher: 8 March 2018 by Serpent’s Tail
Pages: 364 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, mystery
My Rating: 2.5 crowns


April 1943: four boys playing in Hagley Woods, Essex make a gruesome discovery. Inside an enormous elm tree, there is the body of a woman, her mouth stuffed with a length of cloth. As the case goes cold, mysterious graffiti starts going up across the Midlands: 'Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?'

To Ross Spooner, a police officer working undercover for spiritualist magazine Two Worlds, the messages hold a sinister meaning. He's been on the track of a German spy ring who have left a trail of black magic and mayhem across England, and this latest murder bears all the hallmarks of an ancient ritual.

At the same time, Spooner is investigating the case of Helen Duncan, a medium whose messages from the spirit world contain highly classified information. As the establishment joins ranks against Duncan, Spooner must face demons from his own past, uncover the spies hiding beneath the fabric of wartime society - and confront those who suspect that he, too, may not be all he seems ...

My Thoughts

I was attracted to this book as it was based around two incidents from history: the Hagley Woods Murder of 1943; and also, the events leading up to the 1944 trial of Helen Duncan, a Scottish medium ( one of the last people convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735).  Add into the mixture, World War II and Nazi spies and one would think you were on a winner.

The positives of this book was indeed the concept. A mixture of witchcraft and German spies set during the war is fascinating, especially considering it’s formation from real time events. The attention to detail from the time period was also well presented - a good mixture of fact and fiction that was obviously well researched and informative with the right balance of imagination. I also particularly liked the main lead of Spooner - easy to appreciate and empathise with. Sadly, however, these aspects were not enough to carry the book over the line for me. I struggled to finish it, finding it to be pretty dry and confusing at times.

My first confusion came with the synopsis and what I thought would be the initial catalyst for the story. No - this did not occur until well into the book and I was unsure of how it would all fit together. I felt misled. Some events were built up, but later left out to dry - not as important as I initially anticipated - whilst others led to nowhere. This provided another confusion for me,  as I found the writing rather disjointed regarding who, what or where events were taking place. There are loads of characters that make it difficult to really engage in the plot and sift through who was pertinent and who wasn’t.

So all up I was deflated after what at the outset had appeared a good basis for an engaging story. Perhaps it would have been better served if the stated synopsis and the discovery of 'Bella in the Wych Elm' had indeed been the initial hook and then the author had worked back from that point? Who knows?

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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