“As I previously stated, madam, I am not with the police. If you believe a murder has taken place–“
“No Mr. Doyle,” the woman hastened to explain. “That is my problem. I need you to solve a murder…that has not yet taken place.”
Source: Review copy from publisher
Publisher: Titan Books
Publication Date: March 28, 2014
1894—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has committed murder most foul, and feels not the least regret. With the death of Sherlock Holmes, his body washed away in the waters below Reichenbach Falls, Doyle is finally free to write the fiction he wants, stories of substance to be remembered beyond his lifetime—stories with greater depth than the trivial “Penny Dreadfuls” the public clamors for. Yet Holmes’ devoted fans will have none of that, and their erstwhile adoration has turned to indignation at the demise of Britain’s most famous consulting detective. Doyle’s relief at being free of Holmes’ shadow turns to dismay when he finds himself the object of the public scorn.
At the very same time Doyle is finding London less than conducive to his health—both physical and mental—he receives a summons from an anonymous woman with an unusual affliction and a penchant for melodrama. She wants to enlist his help in solving a murder—her own as it stands—a murder that will take place two weeks hence. The mysterious woman claims to be a renowned medium, utilizing her clairvoyance to pull aside the veil of life and glimpse what lies beyond. Unfortunately for her, what lies beyond is death by murder. Yet to her mind there is some hope of avoiding that fate, a hope maintained because of the one face she sees clearly in her visions—the face of Arthur Conan Doyle.
At first Doyle is skeptical, but after witnessing a performance of Daniel Dunglas Hume’s astounding levitation and “feats of psychic wonder” with his good friend and confidante, the irreverent and debauched Oscar Wilde, he begins to wonder. Shortly thereafter, his fate is sealed when he receives a summons to appear as a prospective member of the Society for Psychical Research at Thraxton Hall, the matriarch of which is one Hope Thraxton, a young medium with an unusual affliction…
Vaughn Entwistle’s The Revenant of Thraxton Hall is first in a series of novels known as The Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chronicling the exploits of Doyle as he examines um…well…the paranormal. It’s a mystery blending historical reality and paranormal fantasy as Conan Doyle explores the world of 19th century Spiritualism, a subculture populated either by paranormal charlatans or characters finely attuned to what lies beyond the mortal coil .
Before reading The Revenant of Thraxton Hall I was only vaguely aware of Conan Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism and most unaware of the Society for Psychical Research, a group that astonished me by its mere existence. Skepticism is apparently much more a part of my nature than I thought, and so it was that I had a hard time suspending my disbelief while reading this novel. Accepting that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was somewhat of a sleuth in real life is really quite easy. Accepting that he was a sucker for the pseudo-science of Spiritualism is not. However, one should not argue with history, so let’s agree for the moment that Doyle was as fallible as the rest of us and go on from there.
What I found while reading The Revenant of Thraxton Hall is that while Entwistle has come up with an intriguing idea, his execution of the storyline was rather uneven. While doing an excellent job of incorporating historical characters of the SFPR into this tale of paranormal intrigue, there were times where the background, the characters, or the situation, were rather stereotyped.
An example would be the setting. Thraxton Hall is a formerly stately manor fallen to disrepair (if only to provide a suitably creepy setting for the novel) in which the characters find themselves conveniently trapped for the majority of the novel due to a raging storm and its isolated locale. It’s the house on haunted hill without the hill, a setting particularly suited to ghost stories, mysteries, and almost every Scooby-Doo episode. Honestly, I’m beginning to wonder if there are any English estates that don’t harbor a multitude of secret doors and passages to sepulchral crypts. And yet it is par for the course with regards the supernatural, a manor reminiscent of Hell House or Shirley Jackson’s Hill House.
As to the characters, they represent a mélange of the eclectic and cliché, from Madam Zhozhovsky, renowned Russian émigré (possibly of Barnsley in Yorkshire) and noted palm-reader/medium/charlatan, to Lord Webb, a rather compelling mesmerist (and stuffed shirt) whose motives are not altogether forthright. Then there’s Mrs. Kragan, the crotchety head housekeeper with her own motives, and Greaves, a blind butler who knows the ins and outs of Thraxton Hall like the back of his hand—by necessity. There’s Frank Podmore, skeptic (and historical figure) obsessed with unmasking the frauds he believes to infest the society, especially with regards Daniel Dunglas Hume, “the greatest psychic medium in the world!” another historical figure whose affinity for levitation borders on the absurd. There’s Hope Thraxton, heir to Thraxton Hall, a talented medium and heiress who suffers an unusual affliction that necessitates her living in continual darkness and that may eventually lead to dementia—if it already hasn’t. An amusing nod to the Sherlock canon resides in the character of “The Count”, a European aristocrat who sports a three-quarter mask reminiscent of certain Bohemian King for much the same purpose.
Lest we forget, this is a novel taken from the paranormal casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and yet it is in him that we find the least flamboyant character. He’s dismissive of his fictional sleuth, yet envious of Sherlock’s analytical abilities. He’s duty bound by the conventions of the 19th century, conflicted by his physical attraction to young Hope Thraxton and the guilt of such thoughts in the face of his wife Touie’s long illness. He also plays the role of the straight man to his eccentric friend, the bohemian Oscar Wilde.
It’s with Oscar Wilde that I as a reader found a character both ridiculous, yet delightful. Wilde is portrayed in the novel as (I hope) a caricature, outrageously flamboyant, charming yet prissy, bombastic yet squeamish. He’s also easily bored and very, very bohemian, in affectation if not reality. Wilde is a compelling sidekick, a marvelous friend to Conan Doyle, and frankly a lot of fun, but there are moments when his overbearing personality rises to extreme proportions. Then again, I suspect such was true of the man upon which this caricature is based. Finally, we have the eponymous Revenant of Thraxton Hall, an entity that may or may not be influencing the behavior of several characters and a specter to whom I’ll let the reader introduce themselves.
As for the situation, Conan Doyle’s investigation into Hope Thraxton’s murderous vision was dealt with in a generally appealing manner, yet there were times when it felt as though he was making leaps of logic rather than working from the observable facts. There’s also an aside, a “locked room murder” mystery within the mystery that for the life of me HAS NO MOTIVE. A character is killed for no discernible reason whatsoever (and believe me, I searched the text several times for a motive), leaving me as the reader distracted by a puzzle with no solution. There’s a how, when and where, but no why?* The plot tended to meander rather than evolve and there were times when Doyle seemed to stumble to conclusion rather than solve the mystery. However, there is a scene near the end of the novel involving a telegram and a train that makes up for most of the meandering in one fell (redemptive and clever) swoop.
The Revenant of Thraxton Hall was a delightful idea, combining Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism with his natural talent for mysteries, yet this idea was unevenly executed. I suspect that’s more the result of this being a debut or inexperience rather than any lack of ability and that with a sophomore novel, the writing will even out. Even though The Revenant of Thraxton Hall wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, I would heartily recommend it to die-hard fans of Conan Doyle.
Vaughn Entwistle maintains a website (and blog) at www.vaughnentwistle.com and has a sequel, The Dead Assassin, to be published in June of 2015. Based on the description, and being one of those die-hard fans, I suspect I’ll be checking it out.
*If you discover the motive behind the locked room murder, please leave a note in the comments. It would be much appreciated.