Note: This review is for the first edition of A Case of Witchcraft. The publisher has since come out with a new version, with some corrections and content additions. Those I am aware of do not affect my overall opinion of the book, but I do think readers will appreciate them, so try to get the second edition when you can. For more information on what was changed or added, see Mr. Revill’s blog at this link: http://acaseofwitchcraft.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/a-new-and-slightly-improved-version-of-the-novel/
Sherlock Holmes doesn’t believe in ghosts. Or vampires. Or giant demon hounds. But that certainly doesn’t stop him from taking cases from people who do. So it is that when Emily Tollemache appears at 221B one rainy October afternoon to tell him she’s afraid her father is in danger of becoming a human sacrifice at the hands of a witch-cult in the Northern Islands of Scotland, he doesn’t dismiss her out of hand. The Reverend Tollemache, a folklore scholar who has already published a book about werewolves, had travelled there, intent on tracking down the origins of a Norse variation of the “Cinderella” story–a rather darker version, involving witches–when he disappeared. He’s in good health, and quite sane, she tells Holmes and Watson, so when he wrote that he suspected some villagers knew more than they were saying, she believed him. His housekeeper discovered him missing the morning before, and Miss Tollemache has found the local police suspiciously unhelpful. They believe he’s just fallen into the sea–it’s been known to happen–and dismiss her worries about witches out of hand.
Holmes, on the other hand, doesn’t think that foul play–at the hands of a cult, or otherwise–can be ruled out–and at four days ’til Halloween, time is of the essence. He’ll be taking on this case alone; Watson is laid up after having that jezail bullet removed from his leg. Perhaps, Holmes reasons, this is for the best. He’ll either be facing the personification of pure evil, in which case it’s anyone’s guess as to whether he’ll come back in a casket…or he’ll look ridiculous wasting time on a “case” where the elderly victim accidentally doddered off a ledge. He may not have help should it be the former, but he also won’t have witnesses if it proves the latter. He packs Watson’s revolver with a stack of books on witchcraft and catches the night train to Edinburgh.*
He doesn’t remain alone for long, however. The next day, his “private” compartment (he tried to ensure it by bribing the guard) is invaded by a foppish young man who fortunately falls asleep almost immediately, giving Holmes the chance to conduct his research for a few hours in peace. When his companion awakens, he learns that, oddly enough, his fellow traveller also has an interest in the occult. In fact, the young Aleister Crowley claims to practice High Magic, and is on his way to a home he’s recently purchased in Scotland, to spend six months on a demanding, purifying ritual he hopes will enable to transcend the physical and perform miracles. He’s not in a hurry, however, and after a long discussion over fancy Turkish cigarettes, offers to accompany Holmes as a sort of magic consultant. Holmes hesitates a little. He feels disloyal to Watson, for one, and he’s loathe to subject the young man to danger, for another. He wonders how coincidental this meeting actually was. In the end, however, he decides that two are safer than one, and is confident in his ability to rid himself of Crowley, should that prove necessary.
Once they arrive on Trowley and proceed to the isolated village of Cunningsborough, Holmes and Crowley find the situation every bit as intriguing as Miss Tollemache described. It’s obvious that the old scholar believed he had found evidence of a surviving witch cult, and that he believed it would challenge, if not completely change, current scholarship on the matter. It seems equally obvious that he made contact with someone who promised to tell him much, much more, and that he was excited by the prospect. Holmes has to wonder, whether or not this enthusiasm led him into a trap.
As the detective and his assistant begin to look for evidence, however, they find themselves dismissed, if not blocked outright. Footprints are confusing. Documents have conveniently been destroyed. People greet their questions with reactions varying from silence to threats. Most, it seems, don’t believe there are witches on Trowley, and definitely don’t want that old reputation stirred up again–or so they say. The investigators get a different response, Holmes realizes, when they talk to women, such as the flirtatious girl at the chip shop, and the beautiful, freethinking school mistress, Louisa Reid. There is something strange, and something dangerous, going on in Cunningsborough, but only Tollemache knows whether they are one and the same….
One of the reasons Sherlock Holmes has captivated the public imagination for so long is that we know just enough–but not too much–about him. As beloved as Kay Scarpetta or Harry Bosch may be to their fans, they’re not all that intriguing. We like them because we know them. When it comes to Holmes and Watson, however, what we don’t know inspires fascination, and captivates all sorts of fans. After all, when you have strong characters who, at the same time, care to reveal little of their pasts and inner workings, you’re free to imagine what you will. My Holmes isn’t, exactly, your Holmes. When it comes to 221B, we see what we need to see and, many times, we’re looking into a mirror.
This is what makes pastiche and Sherlockian fiction so varied and so interesting. It’s also why some people don’t want to read it, ever. It can be uncomfortable to see your character in someone else’s revealing light.
A Case of Witchcraft is, in essence, two books. The shortest book tells the story of what happened to the Reverend Tollemache, and how Holmes and Crowley fight to save another from the same fate. Revill tells it well, with plenty of detective work (Blotters! Footprints! Secret societies!), false leads, and a suspenseful, disturbing conclusion. You may think, at a certain point in the book, that “there’s nothing to see here,” but you couldn’t be more wrong.
The bulk of the book, however, is a series of conversations. Sometimes they’re about folklore, sometimes they’re about politics or philosophy or youthful mores, but what they’re really about is Sherlock Holmes. Like most Victorian gentlemen, the Great Detective is not forthcoming when it comes to his personal views on sex or religion, or his experience of the same, which is why we often feel compelled to discuss them. Revill’s Holmes, however, is in a confessional mood. Perhaps it’s the freedom afforded by being far away from London, among people he will most likely never see again. Perhaps it’s the hashish–there seems to be a lot of it up North. I suspect, really, that some of it comes from his exhilaration at being with two people, at least, whose thinking isn’t bound by strict convention. Occasionally when an author pairs Holmes up with someone other than Watson, the latter is disparaged, either overtly or implicitly. Revill doesn’t do this. Instead, we see that Holmes–normally on the antisocial side, unlike his clubbable friend–really enjoys getting to discuss his research and thoughts with receptive and non-judgmental listeners.
At this point, I do feel obligated to alert readers that A Case of Witchcraft, while not explicit, and not outside my review guidelines, does broach some adult subject matter in an honest (but not graphic) fashion. Some of you may find this offensive, and others may find it a bit uncomfortable, so be warned that this is not a book for everyone.
I’ll admit that my view of Holmes on both controversial topics is much more traditional. I tend to go with the “lapsed Catholic” view, or to place him with other men of science of the time, such as Charles Peirce, who believed that if science and religion were not immediately reconciled, it was only because we didn’t yet know enough of one or the other.** As to the other, well, I think it’s pretty clear that I have no problem with Holmes and romance, if it’s done well. That being said, I enjoyed reading Joe Revill’s very well-reasoned portrayal of a different Holmesian perspective. It’s a common line of thought, not off-base for a progressive thinker in 1899, and I found it intellectually challenging.
The lengthy conversations in this “shadow book” can take away from the larger plot, however. The fact that they’re often couched in larger discussions of ancient (mostly Norse) folklore mean that the reader often finds herself reading several pages of digressions. I didn’t mind this much; in fact, it reawakened my interest in folklore and made me pull a book out of the TBR pile.*** Mr. Revill knows his stuff, and integrates it well. There are no “As you know, Bob” moments, and Holmes would need to know or at least review a lot of this information to do his job; it’s part of the tedium of detective work. The fact that he finds it interesting jibes well with what we know of his all-encompassing curiosity and his interest in ancient Britain.† Still, some readers may find these portions a distraction.†† I was more frustrated, myself, by occasional sinister portents that ultimately went nowhere, as well as by the fact that, as concerned as Emily Tollemache was about her father, she did not accompany Holmes to actually find him.
If you’re looking for a straight Watson-written pastiche that sounds like something Doyle sold to The Strand, then I will say that A Case of Witchcraft is not the book for you. But if you enjoy adventures in which the most adventurous aspect is the foray into its protagonist’s mind, then you’ll want it on your bookshelf.
A Case of Witchcraft: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available directly from MX Publishing, and your usual online booksellers, both in paper and e-book format. It is now in its second editon. You can find Joe Revill’s very interesting blog at http://acaseofwitchcraft.wordpress.com.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5 “Well worth your time and money.”
So…do you have any thoughts on Holmes and religion? Or Holmes and sex, for that matter? Leave a comment below; first commenter receives a copy of the 2nd edition of A Case of Witchcraft. I will say that the comments should focus only on those topics as they pertain to Holmesian subjects, and should not be explicit, profane, or insulting. There are plenty of online forums to discuss personal views on religion and/or mores; this isn’t one of them and comments will not be approved if they are contentious or disrespectful.
*He also discusses some final matters with Watson in an interesting, perhaps revealing, paragraph.
**I find it indicative of just how real Holmes and Watson are to devotees that they care so much about their religious views, particularly if they are religious themselves. I don’t think Sherlockians need to have Holmes validate their beliefs; rather I have the sneaking suspicion that they’re concerned about his eternal destination.
***Albion’s Seed, for example. Had it for years, hadn’t even cracked the binding; that thing is a door-stopper.
†See “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” (DEVI) for an example of what Holmes does in his off-hours. Also see the blog post below for the real reason Holmes was tempted to go to the, um, meeting to which Miss Reid invites him. It’s wonderfully in character.
††Mr. Revill acknowledges this. In the second edition, he helps the reader along with a change in chapter titles. Read about it here: http://acaseofwitchcraft.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/a-new-and-slightly-improved-version-of-the-novel/.