The Revenant of Thraxton Hall by Vaughn Entwhistle follows Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde as they try to stop a murder before it happens (available March 25, 2014).
Full disclosure: This book is jumping up and down on pretty much every spot I have. Let’s see… 19th Century London? Check. A Crumbling Gothic Mansion? Check. Murder? Seances? Underground crypts? Arthur Conan Doyle hallucinating the ghost of Sherlock Holmes? Oscar Wilde and fabulous outfits? Check, check double check.
I can’t tell you how excited I was to get my grubby little paws on this. But that being said, I’ve been burned before. So I admit, I was a little skeptical. But The Revenant of Thraxton Hall is just terrific.
One of the things that really works is the fictionalized team-up of Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. Alone, neither would have worked. Conan Doyle, a bit serious, a bit dour, would have made the book drag, or worse, forced the book to take itself too seriously. But Wilde by himself would have been unbearable, and certainly would have been too busy changing clothes to actually solve a mystery.
But together, we get Conan Doyle’s keen observation of events and Wilde’s keen observation of humans. Not to mention, his incomparable wit:
“Hello, Arthur,” Wilde said, and then appeared to start and made a show of peering down at Barrie, as if he could not quite make him out. “Why, is that you down there J.M.?” he queried. “Ah yes, I see the moustache if not the man it’s attached to. Honestly, J.M., if it w ere not for your enormous talent it would be so easy to miss you.”
Wilde’s closest friends were often the butt of his wit, but it was never with any malice.
“Ach, It would be hard to miss you, Oscar, in any crowd,” the diminutive Scotsman retorted before dunking his moustache back into his whiskey.
“Really? I am told people miss me the moment I leave the room.”
And while our two heroes are our main focus, the supporting cast truly, truly shines. Some of them are also based on actual people, some are amalgamations of actual people, some are entirely fictional. But all of them, individually and as a group, are amazing.
The man wore an officer’s military cap with a shiny black brim. But, most disconcertingly, his face was hidden behind a three- quarter mask of white leather. Only his mouth was visible, surrounded by a moustache and fiery red chin beard worn short- cropped like a Russian Tsar. He marched stiffly up to them, clicked his heels together, and threw them a short bow.
“This is the Count,” Henry Sidgwick hurried to explain, having seen the rather alarmed looks on their faces. “The mask is for a reason. The Count is traveling incognito.”
Yes. We have a masked count traveling incognito. I’m in love.
We get an elderly Medium with a Russian accent (a la Madame Blavatsky), an American illusionist (to name only two), and of course the Lady of the House, the Woman herself. The reason they are all there.
Mister Greaves cleared his throat to catch everyone’s attention as he announced: “Lady Hope Thraxton.”
Double doors swung open revealing a long corridor so gloomy it seemed like a shaft mined into a block of night. Conan Doyle presumed that, because of her porphyria, the windows on the part of the house Hope Thraxton resided in— her rooms and the corridor leading to them—remained tightly shuttered. They heard the approach of soft footsteps, and then a figure appeared: a slender woman, dressed in black, her face hidden behind a black veil. The room fell so quiet Conan Doyle could hear the rustle of her silk dress. She glided into sight but paused momentarily at the terminator between light and dark.
But wait. There’s MORE:
“What now, Arthur?”
“I’d like to speak to the enigmatic Lord Webb.”
“You think he has something to hide?”
“A man who travels with a coffin must have something buried, if only a secret.”
“Look,” Wilde said, indicating with a nod. “There he is, just entering the hedge maze.”
The two friends strode over to its entrance. “This is a large maze,” Wilde noted. “Finding him could take some time.”
“Perhaps we should split up. You take one entrance; I’ll take the other. One of us should come across him.”
“Very well,” Wilde said. “I feel rather like Theseus. Let us hope Lord Webb does not transmogrify into a minotaur.”
That’s right, kittens. The guy who showed up with a COFFIN is now LOST in the HEDGE MAZE.
I just can’t even.
And here’s the thing. There are so many ways that this book could not work, so very many ways that this whole thing that could go off the rails. In fact, I’ve read several Holmesian/Conan Doylian mystery novels that do both, with great aplomb. And The Revenant of Thraxton Hall never, ever does. Not only does every crazy thing in this book work, but every crazy thing in this book is necessary.
One of the things I really liked about it is that it gave us some actual ghosts. My experience of these types of books is that they tend to go all “Scooby Doo” in the end. (“Oh, that’s not a ghost! It’s Old Man Jenkins wearing a sheet!”) Not so here. And making use of a strong murder mystery plot (even if they’re trying to prevent a murder that hasn’t happened yet) gives weight and purpose to the story, so it doesn’t fly away. What also makes this interesting is that while the Supernatural is “real” in the world of the book, not every Member of the Psychical Research Society has the supernatural abilities that they claim. So this really keeps the reader on their toes.
It would be so easy to get the tone wrong, the pacing wrong. But Entwhistle truly manages to find the balance: he doesn’t take the source material so very seriously that the book becomes overly serious. He knows it’s bananas. He loves that it’s bananas. B.A.N.A.N.A.S. And so do I. But at the same time, he does take quite seriously the business of making a good book. The story is compelling, the mystery solid, with all the good red herrings and false reveals that a strong mystery story demands. I am eagerly awaiting the next in the Case!
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Amy Eller Lewis is a writer and Library Fairy in Southern New England. She works at one of the oldest libraries in the country, www.providenceathenaeum.org which is definitely haunted. Follow her on Twitter @amyellerlewis or on Tumblr: scriptoriana.tumblr.com.