Review: A Case of Witchcraft by Joe Revill

A Case of Witchcraft: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes (2011) Joe Revill [MX Publishing].

I admit to initially having doubts about this book based solely on the title: witchcraft + Sherlock Holmes sounds like a formula for a bad pastiche; throw in the fact that Holmes’ adventure is sans Watson, and we’re approaching very bad burlesque territory. Thankfully my prejudiced and superficial assumptions based on the title of A Case of Witchcraft were completely and totally erroneous.

A Case of Witchcraft is a fast-paced, intellectual thriller meets classic ‘who-done-it’ mystery wherein Sherlock Holmes, accompanied by one of the most unlikely of sidekicks, faces off against the dark forces at work in the storied village of Trowley on the far Northern Isles. Demonically erudite, Joe Revill seamlessly weaves the fruit of his extensive research into mythology, paganism, 19th century occultism and early British history with a Holmesian adventure that makes the novel extremely difficult to put down.

Though the content, theme, dialogue and action of Witchcraft is by no means traditional, run-of-the-mill Holmes pastiche fare, the ‘feel’ of the story is one that could only be conjured by someone who cares deeply about the world of Sherlock Holmes. Part of what sets Revill’s novel off from many of his peers is a risk-taking and non-conformist employment of traditionally ‘taboo topics’ (e.g. Holmes’ sexuality, post-Reichenbach attitude towards religion, etc.) which are handled in a mature, non-sensationalized way making the overall narrative darker and more complex than an average Holmes pastiche, yet refreshingly believable and realistic. 

If you would like to read this book not knowing anything more than what I’ve written above, stop here, order a copy from MX or Amazon or The Sherlockian E-Times and devour it whole. If you would like to know a little more about the plot, carry on (though no major spoilers follow, characters introduced in the first 20 or so pages are mentioned…).

[Reading this one on the subway will definitely cause people to stare.] 

October 1899 - The Reverend Mr. Melchior Tollemache, noted folklorist and occult expert, mysteriously dissapears on an research trip investigating the historical roots of a certain peculiar strain of a popular fairy tale (‘Cinderella’). The reverend’s daughter, Miss Emily Tollemache, concerned that (very) foul play is at work, consults Sherlock Holmes. Though the novel begins in the familiar and comfortable confines of the sitting room of 221B we quickly learn that all is not well: poor Watson sits despondently in an armchair, hors de combat – i.e. “a Jezail bullet from the Second Afghan War was cut today from this sore old limb.” Boswell-less, Holmes listens to a fantastic theory involving witches, human sacrifice, kidnapping and black masses. Miss Tollemache believes her father is still alive, though only temporarily as the ominous date of October 31st approaches.

Holmes, dubious at first, eventually becomes intrigued enough to commit to the rescue of a fellow “truth seeker”. After a quick book buying trip (subject matter: witches) and quick consultation of the Bradshaw, Holmes says his farewells to poor Watson (a rather touching scene) and begins an arduous trip to the Northern Isles: a complicated series of connections starting with the sleeper train to Edinburgh, then a transfer to Inverness and then to Thurso; a coach-ride to Scrabster, an evening ferry, and finally a coach journey from the port at Storwick to the Island capital Northern Isles Trowley.   

In a nod to what I can only imagine is Revill’s slightly ironic attempt at lending an air of normalcy to Holmes’ adventure, the great detective dons a “tweed suit with an Inverness cape, deerstalker cap” - traditional garb for a very nontraditional case.    

Holmes, desiring solitude in order to to read and prepare himself for the case ahead, finds he is not alone in his compartment. Holmes’ cabin companion is described as “a young man in black, with a cane, a silk-lined cloak, and a top hat…well-educated, and almost certainly English…rich…a dandy…the well-cut striped trousers and black frock-coat, the brocade waistcoat and the green bow-tie….a soft collar and rather long floppy, dark hair.” Holmes’ first impression of the young man is that of a “kind of aesthetic young man who probably fancied himself as a poet - and might even be one, since his face was not that of a fool.” (p. 22) As chance would have it, the young man in black is none other than the (one day to be) infamous Aleister Crowley*!! The gregarious Crowley strikes up a conversation and Holmes finds himself strangely attracted to a self-proclaimed ‘white magician’ or warlock; in a word, a believer. 

[A very young Aleister Crowley (1875–1947).]

If you’ve read this entire review, it’s clear your interest is piqued - don’t hesitate or sleep on it or be unduly influenced by the evil one tempting you to choose a more ‘traditional’ Holmes pastiche for your X-Mass, Hanukkah and/or Winter Solstice reading treat. Or if you’re looking for that special and unique book for the envelope pushing Sherlockian in your life, A Case of Witchcraft might just be the ‘magic charm’ you’re looking for. Finally I’m sure many of you are simply dying to know just how our super detective fares against the super natural - I’ll answer with a simple: never judge a black cauldron by it’s, er, cover. A Case of Witchcraft will easily inhabit a comfortable 3 or 4 in my 2011 top 10 Sherlock Holmes-themed (both fiction and non-fiction) tomes. A novel of Sherlock Holmes indeed!


*Also, as chance would have it, “in 1895 Crowley matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge.*

Other Reviews:

Holmes Among the Witches' on Mr. Dan Andriacco's Baker Street Beat.

An erudite, risk-taking, challenging yet satisfying Holmes pastiche' (Oct. 12, 2011) from Always1895's Amazon Reviews.

And don’t forget to start RSS subscribing to Mr. Joe Revill’s blog A Case of Witchcraft.

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