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by Dennis Burges
Carroll and Graf, June 2003
419 pages
ISBN: 0786712023

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

GRAVES GATE is a book that appeals on several levels; it's historical, a mystery set in 1922 London; it features as a major, but not the major, sleuth, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in the later years of his life when his friends and fans were squirming over his apparent enchantment with fairies; and it's a not quite straightforward novel.

There are elements of woo-woo here; by which I mean supernatural events or not-quite-real events -- no, not fairies, don't worry. It does require a suspension of disbelief to accept some of the premises of this story (which I cannot explain, as it gives away too much) but the talented Dennis Burges will keep you reading.

Charlie Baker is an American reporter with Associated Press who's living in England. He's friends with, and somewhat in love with, Adrianna Wallace, whose husband in a member of Parliament and who survived the hell of nursing on the battlefields of World War I. She's wealthy and a socialite, but clearly has a brain.

Charlie also knows writer Arthur Conan Doyle, who seeks his help when he receives a very puzzling letter from someone long-dead. Given Doyle's belief in Spiritualism, he's trying to determine who sent the letter, and why he would be asked by the dead man, psychiatrist Dr Bernard Gussman, to arrange for a visit to a woman in prison, a woman due to be hanged for murder.

Several of Dr Gussman's patients have been in mental hospitals, some succeeded in leaving only to return; all at times act strangely. After a time, I figured out what had happened to these patients and this is when things slowed down for me. There were also times when meetings, discussions, events seemed to stretch for five or six pages when they could have been edited down, without losing momentum, to two pages at best. There were certain realizations that, once I made them, I knew what was going on and needed to move on; there were a few too many draggy spots and iterations of what we already knew. It's good writing, mind you, but there were times I made too many mental 'hurry up' hand motions. Thus, the book was too darn long and I kept trying not to skip ahead.

I believe Burges to be a talented story-teller, able to balance several threads and keep reality going in a slightly unreal situation, but I would have liked GRAVES GATE better at say, 300 or 350 pages, and a slightly spryer pace. The element of 'subgnostic possession' that is critical to the plot is hard for me to swallow, and I think accepting it helps keep the plot credible. I'll be interested to see what Burges does next.

Reviewed by Andi Shechter, June 2004

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