That Old Black Magic by Cathi Unsworth

Review published on February 5, 2018.

Who put Bella down the wytch elm?

I first read Cathi Unsworth with trepidation, I’m a sceptic when it comes to the mystical and her plots often feature the other worldly. Bad Penny Blues set me straight, a brilliant exposé of 60s London and a fine murder mystery. It turned out to be a fantastic read so I don’t worry about that any more. Just as well because the occult features heavily in That Old Black Magic. Back in time another couple of decades to the Second World War and a little further a field, Birmingham, Portsmouth and Manchester. Unsworth has a vivid sense of time and place, her novels are meticulously researched. Bombed out streets, sawdust pubs and theatrical boarding houses, all alive with real people. She is also fantastic at creating an atmosphere. Making the odd ball fascinating, all highly original. That Old Black Magic is a spellbinding read.

January 1941, Hannen Swaffer, reporter, attends a séance at the house of Christian Spiritualist, Winifred Moyes. Winifred is stricken when she channels the voice of a young woman screaming. When she recovers she remembers a girl being strangled – Clara.

German agent Karl Kohl is over England in a Heinkel HE 111, panics at the drop zone and breaks his leg jumping over East Anglia. He has money, a ration card and a radio but he can’t move as people start hunting the parachute. Two farmers capture him and call the constabulary and D.S. Mills is tasked with taking the prisoner to London for interrogation by MI5.

D.S. Spooner, seconded to MI5 from the Met, investigates suspicious groups and individuals from their HQ in Wormwood Scrubs; The Nordic League, Golden Dawn, dissident white Russians. Crucially he has an interest in the dark arts because his father ran an occult bookshop in Aberdeen. He reports to “The Chief”, a man who knows how to utilise Spooner’s knowledge in his investigation into the links between the Nazis and occult philosophies.

Together they debrief the spy Kohl. He tells them a second agent is already in England and has been successful at directing Luftwaffe bombs to British armaments factories. He is particularly proud of the successful raid on the Spitfire factory at Castle Bromwich. The prisoner has been hiding a silver pendant, a pentangle inside a circle with the image of a goat. Baphomet, the goat of Mendez, worshipped by witches. There is also a photo of Clara Bauer and it doesn’t take long to deduce she is the other German agent. ‘Belladonna’ has been posing as a British singer, Clara Brown, since before the war. Kohl refers to his relationship with her as “the serpent and the lion”.

The Chief gets Spooner to go under cover posing as a travelling theatrical agent looking for new talent. If Clara has not been scared off by her friend not turning up they need to find her. Moving into Howell’s boarding house in Birmingham Spooner starts asking around the pubs and clubs. A lead takes him to Anna, apparently she and Clara were a duo performing around the city. There is still no sign of Clara. Who are the two mysterious men who broke up a concert by the girls a few months back, the last time they were seen together? An RAF officer, a Dutchman? Spooner gets the feeling he is being followed. When Spooner catches up with Anna he offers her a gig in London to lure her to an interrogation but he thinks she is probably telling the truth when she says she doesn’t know where Clara is. As Anna and Spooner are leaving a car pulls up violently and Anna is kidnapped, Spooner left dazed from a blow to the head. He is desperate to know if she is alive but it will be some time before he finds out.

Add to the mix the ghost hunter Henry Price, the séances of Mrs Helen Duncan (revealing war secrets in a true and truly bizarre event in British legal history) and the Blackout Ripper who killed four women early in 1942. That Old Black Magic weaves a thread between real events and a wonderfully imaginative plot to great effect. Unsworth has a way of making a whole host of strange characters come to life, even the ones spoken about rather than seen (mysterious characters off page who weigh on the narrative). The tone of the book is unsettling and dark. The feeling of the mystic and unexplained is beguiling and engaging. As a study of characters on the edge of reason and conformity it really works.

There is a very clever use of a strange but true story from the war that gives more weight to the fictional plot and makes the bizarre elements more believable. Fact is stranger than fiction sometimes and Unsworth knows how to exploit this. Among the richly drawn oddball characters we have a down to earth hero, a grounded man, Detective Spooner. He is understated but a great foil for the occult storyline. Unsworth’s fascination with the occult, séances, second sight and the unexplained give a unique feel to her fiction which is so imaginative. I like it in spite of my scepticism.

The after word made me realise more of the basis of the story is true than I thought. I’ll leave you to find out for yourselves. One danger of reading this book – if you know a version of the song, That Old Black Magic, it will run around in your head every time you pick the book up!

An engrossing read that conjures up the spirit of the time. An oddball story that illustrates the bizarre and varied truth behind the often simple narrative that has been passed down of the war.

Paul Burke 4/4

That Old Black Magic by Cathi Unsworth
Serpent’s Tail 9781781257272 pbk Mar 2018

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