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Graves Gate: A Novel of Possession 6 March 2010

Posted by The Inimitable M in Books, Reviews and Writing.
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Oh, lord, don’t tell me this is “a novel of possession”!  I am not in the mood for exorcisms, horror, blood, vampires, ghosts and all that.  Come to think of it, unless there is a scientific basis for any of those presuppositions, I’m never in the mood.

Still, when you mention the inimitable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, even outwith his Sherlock Holmes novels, I can be persuaded.  I knew he was fascinated with what fell beyond the physical and known and was deeply immersed in the Spiritualism movement of the 1920s.  It is my favourite era in history, too.

This is the basis for Graves Gate by Dennis Burges, compiled from descriptions of the book:  “[Graves Gate] traverses the strange and often frightening intersection between Spiritualism and early psychiatry, featuring a murderous psychiatrist named Dr. Bernard Gussmann, whose occult experiments include a dark practice he dubs “subgnostic possession.” Spiritualists of the day included the famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who here has an opportunity to legitimise his unusual beliefs when he receives what seems to be a letter from the [presumed] long-dead doctor extending an offer Doyle cannot refuse: communing with the deceased in exchange for a small favour…Doyle seeks help from his American journalist friend, Charles Baker, who teams up with Adrianna Wallace, wife of a prominent Member of Parliament. As the trio…follow the ethereal track of Gussmann, they soon learn that they are accomplices to a deadly game of musical chairs.”

I did not have to prop up Dennis Burges’ first novel with Strunk & White.  The man knows how to write.  It was a smooth read.  One would expect this from a man who has an MFA and teaches English, though.  Yes, yes, I know.  Some people with MFAs seem to have purchased the parchment rather than study, but not in this case. 

Burges told a good story, except:

1.  Key questions brought up in the story line were left uncomfortably unanswered. 

2.  There were holes in the explanations of certain elements and characters.

3.   Detail regarding 1920s psychiatric study was poorly presented when mentioned at all.

4.   Objects, people and situations appeared and disappeared with no bearing on the story line.

In the beginning, the story was so rich with detail that it ran through my head similarly to an old 1920s black and white film, complete with costume, hissing sound and the voices of Constance Bennett and William Powell.  Lifestyle, politics and culture seemed to appear clearly before me.

It lost its magic as the story became more complicated.  I grew tired of secondary characters.  It bothered me that, for those who know very little about psychiatric history during that time period, the asylum’s environment was glossed over.  It seemed to me that Burges assumed people would know these things before reading the book.  In truth, the farther we get into the 21st Century, readers will know and understand less and less of such details.

I enjoyed the story immensely up until the last 70 or so pages.  When the final secondary character came to the forefront of the story and we were past the concept of “musical chairs”, I could almost hear the balloon hiss as it deflated.  The end was disappointing.  The grip was gone.  It was a matter of turning pages, hoping it would pick up again.  I got to the end and thought, “That’s it?  This is the end?”  I was sure there were pages missing.

Apparently there is a series in the offing, which is the reason (really?) Burges chose to end it in this way.  I was depressed and disheartened.  This is not the way to end a book going into a sequel.  The reader is supposed to care so much for the characters that they must pick up the next book to see what happens.  About 25 pages from the end, I no longer cared about Baker and Wallace.  Wallace was the killer nurse.  Okay.  Baker lost his job.  Okay.  Doyle?  Well, others have written about him.   

Still, I will pick up the next book anticipating a good read and hope for a better ending.  For Graves Gate, though, I will have to grudgingly agree with the reviewer from Publishers Weekly who said, “What begins as a promising, atmospheric tale of interwar London slowly degenerates over the course of this…novel into a muddy hybrid of old Sherlock Holmes routines mixed with contemporary psych-horror schlock.”  …minus much-needed detail, of course.



1. aardvarkian - 6 March 2010

I’ll try it out all the same. Say, have you read Caleb Carr’s The Alienist? If the early days of psychiatry are your ‘thing,’ you might just like this.

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