A Case of Witchcraft

This blog is an extension of the book of the same name: a novel published by MX, available on the Net and through bookshops.

Tag: Dan Andriacco

What Reviewers Have Said About My Book.

A couple of months ago I was anxiously wondering what reviewers would have to say about my Sherlock Holmes novel, A Case of Witchcraft. Now I’ve had quite a few reviews, and I’m happy to say that they have been mostly rather good.

There seems to be a general consensus that the protagonist of my novel is a good likeness of the Canonical Sherlock Holmes. Jaime N. Mahoney, for example, says: “Joe Revill creates a Sherlock Holmes who is every inch the logical, rational, deductive mind that readers want and expect” and “in A Case of Witchcraft, Sherlock Holmes is still, first and foremost, the detective that readers know and love”. Likewise, Susmita Chatto, of The Bookbag, says that the book “brings us the Holmes we love very quickly, instantly recognisable with his usual acerbic wit and attractive peculiarities”, and “provides us with a new insight into the most private recesses of the mind of Sherlock Holmes”. The Booksmonthly reviewer says that “Revill’s imagery and characterisation are superb, and capture Holmes as Conan Doyle had him”.

I did, of course, explore the question of Holmes’s sexuality (or lack thereof) rather more explicitly than is the case in the Canon; and some people like this, while others do not. The Booksmonthly reviewer considers that such things were “left alone by Doyle for good reason”; and the generally sympathetic Ms. Mahoney says: “Hesketh Pearson maintained that readers want to know more about Sherlock Holmes, but Revill makes the reader wonder how much the reader really wants to know, if it is not better to have a divider between the Sherlock Holmes of Dr. Watson’s stories, and the Sherlock Holmes of a harsher reality.” On the other hand, the pseudonymous Literary Fox, on Amazon.co.uk, thinks this aspect of the novel “interesting”, and “thoroughly modern”; while in his own Amazon review, Matt Laffey, of Always 1895, considers that I conduct the exploration “maturely and respectfully” and “to the benefit of the narrative, all the while maintaining a canonical clarity which never forces the reader to question the author’s motivations for breaching canonically quasi-taboo subject matter.”

People generally seem to like my novel’s characters. Ms. Mahoney says that “The cast of characters in A Case of Witchcraft are at turns compelling, menacing, comical, and flamboyant”, adding that “Every character in the novel appears to have a unique role to play, and they do so intensely, no matter how briefly they are on the page.” Literary Fox says that I “create full and believable characterisations”, while another Amazon reviewer, Firefox C., enjoys “the interplay of character” in the book. Philip K. Jones (alias “The Ill-Dressed Vagabond”) is kind enough to say that “the most singular feature of this book is its interesting characters. All of the people depicted present strong and impressive personalities to the world. From the local Detective Sergeant to the Schoolmistress and from the Island Provost to the waitress at a Fish and Chips store, all are distinct, interesting and individual people.” I like them all, too, and I’m glad that my readers feel the same!

The partnership between Holmes and Aleister Crowley was bound to be controversial, given the understandable affection that readers have for Dr. Watson, and the rather dubious reputation which Crowley acquired in later life. I like Dr. Watson too, of course; but I thought that it would be interesting, for once, to see Holmes building a relationship with someone else, to whom he could reveal different aspects of himself. I am glad to see from the reviews that many of my readers agreed. Ms. Mahoney tells us that “Crowley proves a worthy companion to Sherlock Holmes.” FireFox C. says “Holmes’s relationship with Crowley is an interesting twist and offers some fascinating dialogue between two men of powerful intellect and unconventional views.” Ms. Chatto, of The Bookbag, makes the perceptive comment that “Crowley is painted with flair and character and Holmes’s observations of him are in themselves a window into Holmes’s personality.” Matt Laffey has told me in an e-mail that he enjoyed the partnership so much that “I found myself wishing that Aleister Crowley went on more than just one Holmes adventure; honestly it’s a thought I would have never even imagined possible (that is, Holmes + Crowley, back2back!)”

People also seem to enjoy the descriptions in the novel. Ms. Mahoney says that “Revill has done his research in writing this book, and his knowledge comes across in the details—the manner in which he describes food (I have never read a Sherlock Holmes novel with such a lovely, though lengthy, description of cheese), clothing, local and period customs, and settings, particularly architecture. His depiction of Trowley is atmospheric, vivid, and fully-formed.” Ms. Chatto remarks “Revill provides a great deal of attention to detail, from scene-setting to the inclusion of items with which the reader has familiarity in ordinary daily life – Heinz Baked Beans being one example! His descriptive talents are clear as he evokes a Victorian world, and creates scenes of sorcery with vivid imagination.” Firefox C. says “I found the imagery and period detail rich and imaginatively satisfying”, while Literary Fox calls the novel “rich in detail of dress and manners of the period… lending the work a depth of historical realism.”

One thing that baffles me a little is that a couple of critics have found the novel’s philosophical discussions rather modern: Literary Fox says “The Holmes character retains the analytical, problem-solving mind of the original but the philosophical discussions central to the novel are as much 21st century as 19th”; and, perhaps picking up on this, the Booksmonthly reviewer says “Whilst retaining the 19th century flavour of Holmes, Revill attempts to engage some 21st century philosophy”. I really don’t understand this, as it seems to me that all the discussions are very much of their time: the kind of conversations that educated Britons might well have had at the end of the 19th century. Perhaps what is meant is that these discussions of late-Victorian problems are still relevant to us in the modern world. I certainly think that’s true: some things haven’t changed.

So, on the whole, people seem to have liked my book. Matt Laffey calls it “well-written, fun to read, exciting… risk-taking but erudite, challenging yet satisfying”! To Dr. Dan Andriacco, “It’s a thoroughly researched tale of bewitching witches that comes to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion.” To the Booksmonthly reviewer, it is “a superior offering” and an “excellent pastiche.” Firefox C. finds it to be “A worthy re-imagining”, and Literary Fox considers it a “Stimulating, satisfying and enjoyable read.” Most gratifyingly of all, the “Ill-Dressed Vagabond” says: “It is a sharp and cogent tale, not just a case from Late Victorian times, but also a microcosm of large parts of Human History.”

I think that I shall write another one!

Don’t forget, dear readers, that the paperback of “A Case of Witchcraft” is available here on the British Amazon site; and the Kindle version here.

Our American cousins may buy the paperback here, and the Kindle version here.

Sherlock Holmes, Jesus, and me.

Dr. Dan Andriacco is a scholar and a gentleman who wrote a rather magnanimous review of “A Case of Witchcraft”, in which he said lots of nice things, but expressed some polite distaste for my “hasheesh-smoking, socialist Holmes”, and his non-literal view of God. Dr. Dan recommended to his readers the alternative vision of a Christian Holmes as described in An Opened Grave by L. Frank James, in which Holmes examines the evidence for the Resurrection and finds it to be entirely convincing. Dan, who is Communications Director for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, concludes his article with the catchy phrase: “Different Holmes for different folks.” Yes, Dr. Dan: that does seem to be how it goes.

In the case of Jesus, as in that of Holmes, all that we have is a bunch of stories. These stories occasionally contradict one other — and, in sundry places, contradict both the known facts of History and the laws of Nature.

As generations of would-be biographers have discovered, the materials in both cases are quite silent about many interesting aspects of their heroes’ life and thought. We hear next to nothing of Jesus’ childhood, for example, and even less of Holmes’s – which has prompted all manner of theorizing from the reasonable to the fruit-loopy about what might have gone on in their formative years. Their sex-lives are, famously, not described: although we may reasonably infer that both men were celibate as adults, the evidence does not rule out unrecorded liaisons – whether with Mary of Magdala or with Mrs. Hudson, or even (as some have more scandalously suggested) the “beloved” St. John or the “dear” John Watson! Large areas of both Holmes’s and Jesus’ intellectual life are likewise hidden from us.

And so it is that widely-divergent interpretations of Jesus become possible: that Fascists can worship a Fascist Christ and Liberals a Liberal one, for example, just as gay Christians tend to think of Jesus as gay. It’s like looking down a well and seeing one’s own reflection.

Is it possible to get past these projections of one’s own personality and see Jesus as he really was? In my short lecture, A Witch Looks at Jesus, I tried to do just that, using techniques of evidence-gathering and rational deduction that I’d learnt when young from reading Conan Doyle. The result was the blurry likeness of a credible human figure, but not one much like me or anyone that I particularly admired. He looked to me like a deluded cult-leader: a man who actually believes that he’s a special person with awesome powers, when in reality he’s got nothing but the faith of his followers to make him seem like that. We have seen many such in recent times: one thinks of Father Divine, the Reverend Moon, or David Koresh – but perhaps some of these were knowingly fraudulent. Jesus was sincere, I think. He was nonetheless gravely mistaken. He expected the Day of Judgment to come very soon: it did not. He expected to be raised from the dead: he was not.

I looked at the evidence for the Resurrection in a Holmesian way, and the obvious conclusion was that there had been deliberate deception on the part of St. Peter. His motive was that he wanted to take over the cult and keep it going, for his own benefit. So he hired a look-alike (probably Jesus’ brother James) to impersonate the dead leader, at some carefully stage-managed appearances to the disciples in Galilee. (Click the link above if you’re at all interested in this matter, dear reader.)

I hope that this is not offensive to any of my readers: I say it not to cause offence, but simply because it’s what I concluded from looking dispassionately at the evidence, without any preconceived idea that Jesus had to be right about everything. I am quite certain that Sherlock Holmes would have come to the same conclusions, had he studied the evidence.

The Sherlock Holmes of my novel has in fact done so; and, as a consequence, he cannot call himself a Christian. He’s got nothing against Christianity, and in general is quite well-disposed towards it; he just doesn’t think that it can possibly be true. Based on the evidence in the Canon (as described in my previous blog “On the Religious Opinions of Sherlock Holmes”) I wove a back-story about him becoming a Christian and then losing his faith again. Like him, I had spent time in Sudan, and I could imagine how the Islam of that land would have affected him. From reading about Tibetan Buddhism, I could imagine interesting dialogues between Holmes and the Lamas. I wove the story of his travels together with that of his spiritual journey, imagining the things that Dr. Watson doesn’t tell us.

Other versions of Sherlock Holmes as homo religiosus are imaginable, but I have given you mine – and it seems very lifelike to me!

As to the other matters raised by Dr. Dan: in 1899, “hasheesh” was not only legal, but had recently been declared harmless by an official British government report; a few intellectuals and Bohemians, like Mr. Crowley and Miss Reid, were known to smoke it. There really was a shop called Lowe’s, in Stafford Street, which was noted as the best place for respectable people to buy the drug. It seems more likely to me than not that Holmes would have used it occasionally – and his trip to Trowley is one of those occasions.

And Holmes isn’t a thorough-going Socialist in my book: he just says that some socialist policies seem sensible enough to be worth trying, which is not an unreasonable thing to for an intellectual of the 1890’s to think. Socialism was pretty much the big idea among progressive intellectuals at that time; it’s an idea which appeals to a rational mind. The problems with it are not seen until it’s tried in the real world; and, at the time, it had not been tried. My Holmes also believes in the Monarchy and the Empire, let us not forget; and by modern standards he’s pretty sexist. But he wants to ameliorate the condition of the poor, and he’s not averse to doing so by taxing the rich. In that he is a typical British intellectual of his period, a figure like Bertrand Russell, Karl Pearson, or H.G. Wells.

My version of Holmes isn’t particularly like me; although there are some overlaps. I think, for example, that Holmes had Asperger’s Syndrome, as do I. That gave me some insight into his inner life, that came in useful when writing the book.

I set out not to make a Holmes in my own image, but a credible human Holmes who could have done the things that he did in the Canon. Do my readers think that I have succeeded? Please comment and tell me.

Don’t forget, dear readers, that the paperback of “A Case of Witchcraft” is available here on the British Amazon site; and the Kindle version here.

Our American cousins may buy the paperback here, and the Kindle version here.

Reviewing my Peers: Three MX Authors.

The same box which brought me the complementary copies of my own novel also contained three other works, by fellow MX authors, of which I shall give you a brief account.

Dan Andriacco’s “Baker Street Beat” is a slim volume of Holmesian writings of various kinds. The stand-out piece here is the excellent pastiche, “The Peculiar Persecution of John Vincent Harden”, which is very much in the manner of the original stories. I also enjoyed the time-travelling play “The Wrong Cab”, in which a modern American private eye becomes Holmes’s partner in a grisly mystery set in the Chamber of Horrors; and “Reichenbach Pilgrimage”, which gives a good account of what there is to be seen at the second most famous place in the Canon.
I have to take issue with Dan over his essay on “Writing the Holmes Pastiche”, however, since his rules would disallow any Holmesian fiction not written from Dr. Watson’s point of view, containing real historical characters, and having the word “Case” in the title! They are good enough rules if one is trying to produce an exact imitation of the original stories, I suppose; but some of us want to do something new with the beloved characters. For my part, I thought that it would be interesting to see Holmes at work without Watson, but instead trying to build a partnership with someone very different, to whom he could show another side of his personality; and I think that it comes off rather well, in my novel, when circumstances oblige him to team up with the young Aleister Crowley.

Gerard Kelly’s “The Outstanding Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes” is a very good imitation of Conan Doyle’s style and methods; the master himself would have been proud of some of these ingenious plots, and the characterization of Holmes and Watson is for the most part unobjectionable. As someone who has been doing a good deal of research into late Victorian manners and customs, however, I was aware of a few anachronisms, which might not disturb the common reader – the most annoying, to me, being Holmes’s extensive knowledge of the “Helvetica” typeface, which was not invented until the 1950’s. Also, there is a real ghost in one story – something that even the spiritualist Sir Arthur would not have allowed in the Sherlock Holmes universe. But people who like the Sherlock Holmes stories, and wish there were a few more of them, should certainly buy this book.

“Barefoot on Baker Street”, by Charlotte Anne Walters, is something very different. It is a hugely ambitious novel, which even describes itself as “epic” at one point. It tells us that, throughout the whole Canonical history of Holmes and Watson, there was another person present: a feisty criminal redhead who was intimately involved with both of them – and indeed with their enemy, Professor Moriarty.

The quality of Ms. Walters’ prose is… variable. To my mind it gets somewhat better as the novel goes on. Purist Holmesians will dislike this book for the liberties that it takes with our hero’s character, and indeed with his physical appearance – since Ms. Walters gives him, for some reason, eyes that are “perfectly brown, [of] a deep rich shade, full of intensity” (when everyone knows that Holmes’s eyes were grey). Students of the period might find it annoying that (for example) the heroine is said to be wearing a “bra” decades before such garments were in use.

But pedants such as myself are not really the target audience for a book such as this; it is aimed rather at a female readership that has for centuries delighted in the exploits of anti-heroines like Moll Flanders, Becky Sharp, and Scarlett O’Hara; and such readers may well enjoy the tumultuous adventures of the ruthless, sexy “Red”. It strikes me that this might make rather a good film. Directors take heed!

Don’t forget, dear readers, that the paperback of “A Case of Witchcraft” is available here on the British Amazon site; and the Kindle version here.

Our American cousins may buy the paperback here, and the Kindle version here.