That Old Black Magic (2018) by Cathi Unsworth. This is not going to be a long review. I was completely beguiled by this book. I got into it very easily and had to ration the chapters after I got half way through because I didn’t want it to end too soon.

It’s set in 1940’s Britain and follows Detective Sergeant Ross Spooner as he hunts a German agent in wartime Birmingham. At the heart of the story is the mystery of a murdered woman whose remains were found inside an old wych elm tree in 1943. Although she was never identified, mysterious graffitti began to appear a year later asking, “Who put Bella in the wych elm?” Spooner also encounters Helen Duncan, a real-life medium and the last person to be tried for witchcraft in Britain after she revealed the secret news of the sinking of HMS Barham at a seance.

This isn’t one of those Harry Potter of Scotland Yard thrillers that are popular now. It’s solidly grounded in the real world, with a lurking question of whether the supernatural really exists. MI5 gives Spooner a cover as a theatrical agent and this gives him an excuse to roam the pubs and theatres of blackout Britain. Cathi Unsworth conjures a convincing sense of time and place. It wasn’t until page 293 that I came across something I questioned as anachronistic. I actually wrote it down because it made me realise how completely I’d been taken in until that point.*

Unsworth says in the acknowledgements that she felt Dennis Wheatley had been an “avuncular spirit guide” – a comment that brought me up sharp because a couple of times, I had thought That Old Black Magic was like a Dennis Wheatley thriller without the patrician lectures. That does create a dilemma. The question everybody asks about crime thrillers is, “are there any plans to turn it into a movie?” But really, it would take Terence Fisher and the Hammer Films of The Devil Rides Out (1968) to do That Old Black Magic justice.

*It was the use of the term “gig”, which research now tells me was first documented in Melody Maker in 1926 and therefore could have been used in the 1940’s. It was the curse of 21st Century neoliberalism that threw me. But it also indicates how convincing the book is in general .

That Old Black Magic by Cathi Unsworth. Serpent’s Tail/Profile Books £12.99 ISBN 978 1 78125 727 2