I’d anticipated this book for a couple of months having been told by my Squad Pod ladies that it was going to be a fantastic read. It certainly was, and even more than that, it was surprising too. Our setting is the city of Belfast, the Titanic sinking is still fresh in everyone’s minds. It’s especially fresh at Professor William Crawford’s house since his brother-in-law Arthur was on the ship. Crawford is our narrator and he introduces us to his happy, but chaotic household as the novel opens. He is a man of science, working at an institute both furthering scientific enquiry and teaching the next generation of engineers. He’s a sceptic, so when he finds out that his wife is visiting a medium and has been trying to contact her brother Arthur, he’s shocked and angry. There’s no question that this girl is a fraud, stringing his wife along with a show put on with the help of her shady family. Yet, the couple have lost their son Robert and Crawford’s grief is overwhelming. So when he hears Robert’s voice calling to him alongside an angry, vengeful Arthur who blames Crawford for his death, a small crack grows in his scepticism. What if he were to apply his scientific rigour to to this girl medium’s powers? If he could prove a link exists between this world and the next he could make a name for himself, not just in Ireland but all over the world.
I found the tone of the book quite unique and fresh. We see Crawford’s world through his eyes and this gives us a chance to really know him. I loved that he had the petty work grievances and rivalries that are familiar to us today. His pomposity and stuffiness could get him into scrapes with other people who don’t understand his Edwardian ‘Sheldon Cooper’ tendencies. At home his need for routine and things done a certain way is met with a certain amount of fond irritation. The children tend to break through the veneer of grumpiness and when a mysterious new maid appears, she seems to know him so well and has what he needs ready before he even misses it. I loved comic little scenes like the undignified moving of naked statues at the institute. When chosen for a special job before an important dinner, Crawford’s self-importance starts to show itself. His disgust when he finds out he’s just a removal man is so funny, a situation that’s made worse when family patron Aunt Adelia accuses him of manhandling a naked woman at an upstairs window. Sometimes it’s the author’s description of a character, as seen by Crawford, that raises a smile. Crawford’s colleague Stoupe is described as:
‘Damn it, there was no escape, and no creature on earth moves so quickly as an irritating man. He danced over the tiles towards me, grinning, all arms and sweat, dressed preposterously in a baggy velvet suit, pursing his lips like a kissing pig. He gave a courtly bow before standing far too near, smelling of lavender, whisky and damp, short tufts of blonde hair.’
There are other sections of the book where his privileged position as a white, middle-class man of some scientific standing, gives him so much power he starts to abuse it. One section that I found really disturbing was his insistence that the medium, Miss Goligher, prove her gift is genuine by submitting to different tests and examinations. He forces Rose, their maid, to cavity search the unfortunate girl in an enormous abuse of power. There is also the burning of his son Robert’s comfort blanket which felt particularly cruel. The seance scenes are intense and confusing. At one point attendees are tied up and blindfolded as per Crawford’s instructions, but he still finds it difficult to understand what exactly is going on. In America, a meeting with Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini show the circles he’s starting to travel in. They add authenticity to the period and subject matter, because even though William Crawford’s experiences were documented historically, the book fictionalises them. Similarly both Conan Doyle and Houdini were fascinated with phenomena like mesmerism and mediumship. As an aside, Conan Doyle was famously taken in by two small children who claim to have photographed fairies in their garden, so his eagerness to see proof of mediumship and his note of caution feel consistent with his known experiences. What I loved more than anything was the author’s ability to surprise, because as we neared the end I had no idea how the book and Crawford’s investigations would conclude. The theme of dishonesty is there right from the start, in Arthur’s reasons for being on Titanic, to the hidden note from their old maid who left in a hurry, and Elizabeth’s absence at weekly church meetings. By the end I felt triple bluffed, but couldn’t help smiling at how clever the author had been. As many of our characters find out, when it comes to being dishonest, the person we deceive most often is ourselves.
Published on 7th October 2021 by Duckworth Books
Meet The Author
A.J. West grew up in Buckinghamshire, before studying English Literature in Preston. He worked as an award-winning network television and radio news presenter and reporter before appearing on the legendary reality television programme Big Brother, where he became a household name, though the specific household is yet to be identified. He stumbled upon the troubling case of William Jackson Crawford and his paranormal investigations while working for the BBC in Northern Ireland. He has been spellbound ever since.