The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal
by K. J. CharlesSet in late 19th century England, the world of Simon Feximal is one plagued with ghosts and unquiet spirits. Simon Feximal is one plagued with ghosts and unquiet spirits. He is a talented occultist whose skin is a tattoo of moving runes that allow the dead to communicate with him. The story is told from Robert Caldwell's point of view. Robert is Simon's assistant and friend, although their relationship is a good deal more complicated than that description suggests.
This is a casebook, and each chapter deals with a different mystery. Most of those would work as discrete short stories, but they are also linked by the developing relationship between the main characters, and by the unfolding mysteries of the ghost hunting world and how Simon and those around him were shaped by events in their past.
The stories owe debts to folklore, history, and 19th century literature. Each chapter is an intriguing, satisfying mystery, whether it's a murder linked to butterflies, the closely guarded secret of an aristocrat, or a puzzle involving London's toshers and their luck. Rival occultists, as well as the establishment, challenge our friends as often as the ghosts they try to track down and put to rest.
Whilst Feximal has a reputation as a ghost hunter, he's far from a member of the establishment. Instead, he sits outside of it, a boxer by hobby and a fighter by inclination. He's a distant and guarded figure in contrast with Robert Caldwell's more open character, and there are definite Holmes and Watson elements in their relationship.
The story of a missing girl that leads them into the world of toshers brings the sights and smells of London into pungent focus. It's visceral, textured writing that really puts the reader in that world, whilst emphasising the class differences that constrain various different characters.
A chapter about the true cost of connecting with ghosts, and of divination magic, builds to an emotionally intense climax. However, a different kind of intensity is introduced with an explicit gay love scene in the first chapter, and through similar ones that appear throughout the book. The author makes clear early on what kind of romance to expect.
Ghosts, society's expectations, malevolent people, and a strict class hierarchy make for an involving narrative with plenty of mysteries to explore, whilst the growing and changing relationships between the main characters link it all together. The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal is varied enough to excite, intrigue, and move in equal measure.
12th August 2020
Review © Ros Jackson
Source: own copy