What Rough Beast
by H. R. Knight
Setting: London 1906
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini set out to expose a charlatan and inadvertently unleash a monster on London.
Since I’m such a history geek, I don’t normally enjoy mysteries with real people as sleuths, but H. R. Knight’s writing drew me in. The book is written in Conan Doyle’s first person viewpoint as he details his paranormal adventure with Harry Houdini. (In real life, the two men were friends.)
The two men set out to expose spiritualist Maximilian Cairo as a charlatan. They think he is taking advantage of a mutual friend desperate to contact the spirit of her dead husband. During a ritual in the cellar of Cairo’s basement, Houdini accidentally breaks a magical circle, and the spirit of the god Dionysus is set free to wreak havoc on London. Which of the people present has been taken over by the god and how do they stop him? When one of the men present is arrested for the brutal murder of his brother, Conan Doyle and Houdini set out to prove his innocence.
The title comes from the final verse of THE SECOND COMING, a poem by William Butler Yeats, written in 1919.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
As I was reading the book, the quote that most came to my mind was the anonymous Ancient proverb, Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s an intelligent and exciting mystery, and Knight’s prose is beautifully written. The two men are an interesting study in contrasts. Conan Doyle is interested in the spiritual world while Houdini is the complete skeptic, even attempting to deny the existence of the occult when faced with evidence that cannot be explained in any other way. All in all, great fun. Recommended for adult readers who enjoy mysteries or paranormal fiction.
Disclaimer: H. R. Knight is my friend Harry Squires. I heard him read from What Rough Beast at the Lady Jane’s Salon OC in September and had to read the book. I purchased the e-book for my Kindle. A podcast of the event is available at the website or on iTunes.
Interview with H. R. Knight:
I didn’t realize Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were friends. How did you come up with the idea of making them co-sleuths in your novel?
I found out Conan Doyle and Houdini were buddies early on in my research. It seemed a perfect combination for conflict—the reserved Victorian gentleman and the effervescent New Yorker. And they had a lot in common: both men had fathers whom they were ashamed of; both had strong mothers they adored. Both had struggled up from poverty to wealth and fame, each in his own form of entertainment.
They split over the topic of spiritualists. Houdini spent his last years exposing their frauds; Conan Doyle became a passionate believer. I thought it would be fun to write a story about the origin of the conflict that eventually destroyed their friendship.
Here’s a picture of them together. Conan Doyle is on the left.
Maximilian Cairo is a fascinating character. Who or what inspired you to write about him?
Cairo is based on a combination of several characters who lived in the early part of the 20th century. Some of them were out-and-out charlatans, some of them may have had real powers and have followers even today, long after their deaths. A lot has been written about the Temple of the Golden Dawn—a group of occult experimenters. Reading about them was very helpful.
And, of course, I’ve been a fan of the great supernatural writers from that time period since I was a kid— M. R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood. I hope their influences show in the book.
I wondered if there mightn’t be a bit of Aleister Crowley in Maximilian Cairo. It’s obvious you did a lot of research for the book. Were you able to travel to England for hands-on research?
One Autumn, many years ago, Susan and I got to take a research trip to England. She was sniffing out Viking sites for her book Danegeld; I was learning about Edwardian England. It was a wonderful trip for both of us. I even found an expert in Edwardian theater who was kind enough to invite us to his Edwardian home in Hampstead Heath. We drank tea with him and his wife in their drawing room as he gave us a private showing of the slide show he presented all over England.
Almost all the locations in my book are still there in London. I took scads of photographs, and you can see the best of them on my website at harrysquires.com.
Are you a plotter or do you write by the seat of your pants?
I guess I’m a pantser. I like to know where I’m going with the story, so I take notes on the ending. But I let the middle develop on its own, once I can hear the characters’ voices in my head.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m revising a book called The Gnostic Formula. It’s a contemporary thriller about Katie, a brilliant young female mathematician, who comes up with a mathematical proof of the existence of God. Two different fundamentalist groups send assassins to kill her for blasphemy. One of the groups hires a private detective, Josh—an atheist, to track her down. By the time he finds her, he suspects he’s being used, and they end up on the run together.
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I have a friend who will love this. Will forward it on.
Congratulations to H R. Knight! It was interesting to learn that Conan Doyle and Houdini were really friends and how that became a fictional story. Always good to hear that an author has done his research.
What a fascinating friendship and fun historical fact to use in your writing!
Wow! What a great review! I loved the review itself plus the interview and the photos. I had no idea the two men were friends. Thank you!