Tag Archives: Mystery & Detective – General

Exquisite Corpse

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Exquisite Corpse [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Robert Irwin.

Irwin Exquisite Corpse

In Exquisite Corpse, Irwin’s novel takes the form of an “anti-memoir,” during the context of a London Surrealist cabal in the interwar period and the later dispersion of its members. The painter Caspar gives an account of his love for Caroline, his loss of her, and his subsequent efforts to find her, including the writing of the story itself. “What you hold in your hands is not literature, but a magical trap. Its sole purpose is to seek out Caroline” (10).

The result is a sort of Hypnerotomachia–not one in which the dreamer sleeps, but one where he adventures in “hypnogogia,” the Surrealist term of art for what a ceremonial magician would call the spirit-vision or “astral.” Nor is the dream one of nostalgia for classical knowledge and beauty. “At the dark heart of Surrealism is ugliness and terror” (49). Irwin captures the inchoate compulsiveness of left-esotericism in the first half of the 20th century.

The tale is littered with famous figures as bit players: Salvador Dali, Aleister Crowley, George Orwell, and others. They, along with the events of the war, help to anchor and orient the “marvellous” derangements of Caspar-Poliphilo, which finally arrive at the ambiguous consummation of his quest.

The Hippopotamus Pool

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Hippopotamus Pool [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Elizabeth Peters, book 8 of the Amelia Peabody series.

Peters The Hippopotamus Pool

This eighth novel of the series is set on the cusp of the twentieth century. It is an almost paradigmatic Amelia Peabody tale, with the highest stakes in conventional Egyptology of any of them so far: the tomb of a queen with a sarcophagus unopened since antiquity. The whole multigenerational Emerson-Peabody clan is involved, and the children Ramses and Nefret (along with newcomer David) are now teenagers.

Peters disappointed me by showing some sloppy research: she called a copy of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled a “slim volume”! (It’s hardly such a scarce commodity that she couldn’t have found out firsthand the beefiness of its two volumes.) 

Again, as in the previous book, a couple of useful maps are included–but at arbitrary points in the text which are not noted in any apparatus. A new feature is a dramatis personae list with descriptions prefaced to the novel. For those who resent spoilers (most mystery readers, I would presume), I recommend not reading this list at the outset, although I suppose it might be useful to those coming to the book without having read earlier volumes of the series. Did the author doubt her own efficiency of exposition with respect to the recurring characters? Still, it’s hard for me to see the value of “Characters Appearing or Referred to in The Hippopotamus Pool,” and I will certainly skip any similar offerings in later books. 

The chapter titles are all quoted from the text, and they give a good sense of the witty tone, from “The Trouble with Unknown Enemies Is that They Are So Difficult to Identify” to “No Mystery Is Insoluble–It Is Simply a Matter of How Much Time and Energy One Is Willing to Expend.”

War in Heaven

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews War in Heaven [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Charles Williams.

Williams War in Heaven

I lucked into a cache of Charles Williams volumes at a public library book sale recently: in addition to War in Heaven, I picked up The Greater TrumpsDescent into Hell, and All Hallows’ Eve, each for fifty cents. I’d been meaning to read Williams for quite a while–besides knowing of his Inklings fame and esoteric affiliations, he came recommended by a professor I’d studied with, whose taste in literature I had reason to approve. Aside from the discovery of a murder on page one, War in Heaven starts out rather slow and very English, reminding me almost of the class-conscious domesticity of Ada Leverson. But once the story finds its legs, it is a very lively read. 

The general premise of the novel is that the holy grail has passed into long anonymity in a small village church in England, but that a ruthless Satanist has identified it and seeks to appropriate it to his own ends. A series of “coincidences” (obviously not) rally a set of defenders to the grail, even as the antagonist’s plans become more elaborate and extensive. Williams’ participation in A.E. Waite’s schismatic Golden Dawn group seems to have provided him with sufficient education to write with sound verisimilitude regarding both malign sorcery and beneficent magick. The only technical clinker occurs when he once writes “pentagon” for “pentagram.” (73)

I’m especially impressed by the depth which Williams gives to his villains–quite unusual in explicitly Christian fiction in my experience. He’s managed to identify quite a variety of ways to be evil, and to set these types into fascinating interaction with one another. And I’m somewhat charmed by his beatific archdeacon. When writing dialogue, Williams has an ear for etiquette (kept and violated), as well as a talent for the ominous and the numinous. That talent is shown to great effect at the end of Chapter 5 “The Chemist’s Shop” and in the various encounters with the Young Man in Grey. 

First published at least a couple of years before the earliest of Dennis Wheatley’s “occult thrillers,” this book was doubtless an influence on the latter. The similarities between War in Heaven and The Devil Rides Out are quite extensive. A later line of books that also seems to have drawn inspiration from War In Heaven is Susan Cooper’s terrific juvenile fantasy series “The Dark Is Rising.” I don’t know if Williams was a great reader of the fantasies of fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis’ “master” George MacDonald, but I think War in Heaven deserves comparison with MacDonald’s work better than any of Lewis’ novels do. There is also certainly a whiff of Arthur Machen here, unsurprising in light of their common occult interests.

To be sure, some will find the plot of this novel somewhat unsatisfying. The ending provides a considerable dose of deus ex machina, and it also involves a liturgical rapture which will not resonate with all readers. As Williams has one of his own characters say of churchgoing, “It is a means…. If you do not use it, it is a pity to bother about it; if you do, it is a pity not to use it.” (249)