REVIEW: That Old Black Magic, Cathi Unsworth

Thursday, 11 October 2018

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...

This book is a big no-no for me. And, if I had known that this book was one that connected the Nazis to the occult, then I probably wouldn’t have requested it in the first place. That Old Black Magic attempts to connect Bella in the Wych Elm (a fascinating story that intrigued the hell out of me when I first heard it on the My Favourite Murder? podcast) to the paranormal, and then to Himmler and the Final Solution.
It felt offensive in a way, to blame the murder of fourteen million people on malicious forces; not exactly excusing it, or shifting the blame, but something that fell murkily in that direction. I know that we are endlessly searching for meanings about why evil people do the fucking terrible things that they do and that, through art, examination of that is possible. But frankly, most of the time it is not because of the presence of the occult, mental illness, drugs or any of the other things we blame in our attempts to distance ourselves, explain it all away or bring ourselves a little closure.
Because, if we’re being truly honest with ourselves, maybe the answer is simply because they deign to do so.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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