It is December 1917 and psychologically damaged Trelawney Hart is a habitué of the reading room of the Hyperborea Club in Pall Mall. He had a singular upbringing at the hands of his father: ‘the colonel’ was one of those early Tiger parents who thought that an offspring could be moulded to become a prodigy, the sort of intensive education that John Stuart Mill had experienced. As modern examples suggest, such a hothouse education can lead to an unhappy adulthood. It does not help that additionally Hart became a widower at a young age, and the result of these combined pressures is that he is now an alcoholic, wasting his talents by drinking himself to death as fast as the cherry brandy will allow. For reasons best known to herself he is indulged by the club’s co-proprietor Sibella, herself an eccentric who cannot have heard of dress reform because she creepily retains crinolines.
Sibella is pleased when Hart is shaken from his stupor by the arrival of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle wants him to participate in the investigation of one J. P. Beasant, who Conan Doyle is convinced is a genuine medium. However, Conan Doyle does not wish Hart to report on a séance, but on something far more spectacular: Beasant has undertaken to dematerialise himself and walk through a ten-foot solid brick wall! The wall is being built at the expense of the Society for Psychical Research on the beach at Broadstairs, the town where Beasant is resident, and Conan Doyle is acting as the SPR’s agent in the enterprise. Bearing in mind Hart’s ferociously sceptical attitude, Conan Doyle believes that if he can be convinced by Beasant’s feat, anyone can. The investigation requires Hart to take a train ride to the Kent coast, and at that point the misadventures begin.
Given Hart’s attitudes and the personal frailties he exhibits, one wonders throughout why Conan Doyle feels the need to engage Hart, nor why, having done so, he puts up with Hart’s boorishness as much as he does. It is a nice touch that while lost in Ramsgate, having typically fallen asleep and missed his stop, Hart hooks up with a local vagrant who is down on his luck after also losing his wife. Billy becomes Hart’s assistant, Watson to Hart’s Holmes if you will, though apart from acting as a drinking companion, Billy’s role is minimal and he does not act as the foil for Hart’s sharp intelligence one expects from such a pairing.
Conan Doyle is a frequent character in novels, but it is a surprise to come across a fictional Harry Price for the second time this year, also in a first novel. Hart meets him on the train down, and it transpires that they are going to witness the same event. This is a Price before his reputation took off, and well before he became involved with Borley Rectory. Even though he disappears for stretches, it is obvious that he is going to play a significant role in the story.
The explanation for Beasant’s ‘miracle’ is well done, but the essentials will probably have been worked out, long before Hart twigs the method, by anybody who has read something like Jim Steinmeyer’s Hiding the Elephant. It is also somewhat implausible, because the SPR would have sent representatives independent of Conan Doyle, as the Society was paying, and they would have insisted on inspecting all of the equipment used. With that information they could have worked out how it was done fairly easily. Of course this assumes that the SPR would have paid for this large and no doubt expensive structure in the first place (and with a war on it would not have been easy to acquire such a large quantity of bricks). Why Conan Doyle thinks that walking through a wall buttresses Spiritualist belief in the Afterlife is not made clear, however miraculous it might be; Beasant’s consciousness is still that of a living being.
The title is somewhat misleading because the spirits Hart mostly converses with are, as the book’s attractive design indicates, out of a bottle, and apart from one séance there is little overtly Spiritualistic activity described. However, there is a tiny hint at the end that Beasant may truly have some form of ability. Detracting a little from the careful building up of the atmosphere, there are a number of turns of phrase that seem anachronistic for 1917. And Hart would not have been telling Conan Doyle that he had read The New Revelation as it was not published until March 1918. There were no Zeppelin raids over East Kent in December 1917 either.
The book has a slow start while Hart gets himself down to the seaside, but once there it picks up and eventually rattles along, and at times it is very funny. That part of the world in winter is certainly well observed. The novel’s ending suggests scope for a sequel, to see if Hart can work out his demons and divine Sibella’s feelings for him before he succumbs to alcohol poisoning.