Review: That Old Black Magic by Cathi Unsworth

Title That Old Black Magic
Author Cathi Unsworth
Genre Historical Fiction, Mystery
Format eARC
Page Length 364
Publication Date 08 Mar 2018
Publisher Serpent’s Tail
Read Date Jun 2018
Recommended No

April 1943: four boys playing in Hagley Woods, Essex make a gruesome discovery. Inside an enormous elm tree, there is the body of a woman, her mouth stuffed with a length of cloth. As the case goes cold, mysterious graffiti starts going up across the Midlands: ‘Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?’

To Ross Spooner, a police officer working undercover for spiritualist magazine Two Worlds, the messages hold a sinister meaning. He’s been on the track of a German spy ring who have left a trail of black magic and mayhem across England, and this latest murder bears all the hallmarks of an ancient ritual.

At the same time, Spooner is investigating the case of Helen Duncan, a medium whose messages from the spirit world contain highly classified information. As the establishment joins ranks against Duncan, Spooner must face demons from his own past, uncover the spies hiding beneath the fabric of wartime society – and confront those who suspect that he, too, may not be all he seems …

I received a copy of this from Netgalley. My thanks to the publisher for this opportunity. These are my honest thoughts of the book.

– Unsworth’s historical accuracy. It’s clear that Unsworth did her research when crafting this world. I never once felt like I wasn’t in the 1940s.
– Detective Spooner. The protag of the story. He’s determined, and focussed on his work. Prepared to do whatever is necessary.
– The seance scenes where interesting, I s’pose.

– Pretty much the rest of the supporting cast. There is a larger cast of somewhat irrelevant characters. Many of them just feel… samey, and therefore I struggled a little to keep on top of who was who and what significance they held.
– The overall lack of immersion in the occult and the nazi’s use of such.
– The amount of telling and showing. It’s the opposite of how to tell a good story. There are way too many convenient exposition conversations in this. It just felt forced.
– The pace of the story. It’s slow, uneventful and boring for the most.
– The girl in the Wych Elm isn’t mentioned until a good 75-80% of the way through the book. Erm.. what?!

Overall Thoughts
So, you read that synopsis/blurb and what do you think? I can’t hear you, why are you answering?! Well, when I read it I thought ’Oh my, witches, and magic, and nazis, and murder mysteries, and Bella in the Wych Elm?! Yes please. All of the yes.’ And then I read it, and I had all that enthusiasm slowly beaten from me.

This is slow, like, really slow. If you know me, you know I love a good slow burn book. Some of my favourites are slow. The difference is, those work for me because they have interesting characters and a setting so great that I don’t mind being there. That wasn’t the case for this. It’s an accurate setting, but I didn’t find it engaging. I was bored a lot of the time. The only time I found myself immersed in the story was during the couple of seances that take place. That was fun.

There was very little in this that kept me intrigued or wanting to go on. I could have quite happily left this at 80% and not come back to it. The writing is rather bland and lacks any prose. It’s very direct and bland. Person enters room, sits down and has this conversation. Then we are at the end of that interaction so person gets up and leaves the room. Yawn. There is no real description or mood setting.

I was looking for a fun story that would explore the Bella in the Wych Elm myth/mystery with Nazis and the occult, and we just didn’t get that. In the acknowledgements section, Unsworth states that she was told about Bella in the Wych Elm once she was writing the story. It shows. It shows that she crowbarred this into the story towards the end. It just doesn’t work. It didn’t work for me, and in this age when we each have a tbr of 251050254153 other books to get to, I wish I had given this a pass.

Anyway, I’m off to read the wiki page for Bella in the Wych Elm and other articles about it because they are much more exciting and interesting. Until next time, Peace and Love!

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  1. Ooooh… you know, the whole time I read this review I was thinking- dude, you should have picked up The Hollow Tree instead! It’s based on the same historical event but by the sounds of it, it’s waaaay more entertaining! 🙂
    *gets up from couch to check the author of The Hollow Tree*

    James Brogden! 🙂
    Although, I completely understand if you want to like.. lay off the similar plot for now 😛 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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