What Rough Beast
You know, there are a lot of people out there who revere Arthur Conan Doyle and who scoff – scoff, I tell you – at those with the temerity (the nerve!) to put their puny talents to use bastardizing the author’s immortal characters. and, yep, it has to be admitted that I’m one of them. But, even to a diehard like me, the great author himself is a different matter, especially when the writer who takes him on is someone with a real feel for both the times and the author and who has the ingenuity to come up with a really nifty story featuring Conan Doyle and his sometimes real life sparring partner, the great illusionist Harry Houdini.
For those who don’t share my affection for the author, Conan Doyle firmly believed in the ability of spiritualists to contact the dead and was a dedicated supporter of the cause with both his considerable influence and his considerable funds. (You can still visit in London today a magnificent Belgrave Square mansion he bequeathed to a British spiritualist group.) Houdini, on the other hand, believed (probably quite correctly) that the vast majority of mediums were charlatans out to make a quick buck at the expense of the bereaved, making it his very great pleasure – and his crusade – to expose them. As unlikely as it may seem, Conan Doyle and Houdini were, indeed, friends for a time, eventually becoming estranged over their vastly differing views of the supernatural.
Unquestionably, two such fascinating individuals, not to mention an equally fascinating subject, add up to fertile ground for a riveting story and I’m happy to say that H.R. Knight more than delivers on that promise. What, he wonders, would happen if Conan Doyle and Houdini were actually involved in a Sherlockian-style mystery featuring an evil conjurer who just might be the real thing?
Taking a short break from the bedside of his dying wife, Conan Doyle and his son attend a London performance of the great Houdini – a performance interrupted by a real life threat to the performer. Rescued (however improbably) by Conan Doyle, Houdini informs him that he believes the thug who attacked him was hired by Maximillian Cairo, a spiritualist Houdini is out to expose who is widely known as “the most debauched man in London”.
Eager to assist Houdini and undeniably curious himself, the two present themselves the following evening for a seance at Cairo’s London home. Still, despite the theatricality of the proceedings featuring all manner of taps and apparitions, Houdini succeeds in debunking the entirety of the evening’s entertainment. None too happy with Houdini and the exposure of the “mummery” he says supports his “real work”, Cairo (who I imagined as a sort of Aleister Crowley) challenges everyone at the seance to come again the following evening when he will prove without a shadow of a doubt that he possesses “occult knowledge that will transform the world”. And, as events over the following days prove, it seems that Cairo’s promise may well be more than empty boasting.
H.R. Knight (husband of author Susan Squires) does a fantastic job of bringing two fascinating characters to life, while also telling a wonderfully page-turning tale. The biggest hurdle for me, of course, was the character of Conan Doyle. Fortunately, for this reader Conan Doyle felt “right” to me, as did the Sherlockian approach the character takes to getting to the bottom of the mystery. My knowledge of Houdini wasn’t much beyond cursory when I started this book, but now I find myself wanting to know more about the real life guy. As for the Houdini we meet here, he’s smart, determined, incredibly gifted, and a worthwhile partner for Conan Doyle as the two work together to stop the malevolent forces facing them.
Though I hate to make an obvious comparison, there are elements here that definitely reminded me of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, both in the tone of the story itself and in the obvious use of real life characters interspersed with fictional ones. But, while What Rough Beast might well appeal to readers who enjoyed both that book and its sequel (The Angel of Darkness), it’s also a good bet for paranormal fans. Though I don’t want to give away too much, suffice it to say it’s likely most paranormal readers will enjoy visiting the spooky turn of the 20th century London conjured up by the author – especially since the book’s fog-shrouded evenings just might be cloaking the bloodthirsty embodiment of the god Dionysus.
Delivering both a great story and great characters, What Rough Beast is a more than auspicious debut from a writer with both a big imagination and the skill to pull it off. But what about those purists I mentioned? Rest assured that Arthur Conan Doyle is in respectful hands here – so respectful, in fact, that I hope you’ll screw your courage to the sticking place and give What Rough Beast a shot. As for me, clearly, there is some prodigious talent in that Squires household and I’ll be looking forward to the next book by the husband just as I already do his wife.