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That Old Black Magic

3.33  ·  Rating details ·  124 ratings  ·  40 reviews
April 1943: four boys playing in Hagley Woods, Essex make a gruesome discovery. Inside an enormous elm tree, there is the body of a woman, her mouth stuffed with a length of cloth. As the case goes cold, mysterious graffiti starts going up across the Midlands: 'Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?'

To Ross Spooner, a police officer working undercover for spiritualist magazine Two
Kindle Edition, 364 pages
Published March 8th 2018 by Serpent's Tail
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Average rating 3.33  · 
Rating details
 ·  124 ratings  ·  40 reviews

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This is World War Two historical fiction that is a blend of fact and fiction featuring the use of the occult by the Nazis to defeat Britain, spearheaded by Heinrich Himmler, with German spy rings supported by members of British aristocratic circles that want to see the rise of fascism. There are actual historical figures and events in the story, along with thinly veiled characters that represent real people from the era such as Intelligence chief Maxwell Knight. This is a story of the colourful ...more
Feb 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
This novel merges fact and fiction, with the storyline revolving around the real life Hagley Woods Murder of 1943 and the events leading up to the 1944 trial of Helen Duncan; a Scottish medium who was one of the last people to be tried under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.

The book begins in 1941, with Karl Kohl parachuting out of a plane on a mission. Landing in England, he breaks his ankle and is quickly caught by local farmers. Detective Sergeant Ross Spooner is recruited by spymaster, Maxwell Kn
Oct 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
Cathi Unsworth’s last book 'Without the Moon' (2015) was her fictionalised account of the crimes of Gordon Cummins (aka The Blackout Ripper), and the unsolved murder of Margaret MacArthur on Waterloo Bridge.

'That Old Black Magic' (2018) is another drama set during World War 2, and is also based primarily on two real incidents: the Hagley Woods Murder of 1943, and the events leading up to the 1944 trial of Helen Duncan, a Scottish medium, and one of the last people convicted under the Witchcraft
Mar 12, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A wonderful blend of fiction and historical fact as Britain's secret service try to track down a World War II German spy ring which is also involved in Satanic rituals. Ross Spooner is a police officer seconded to "The Chief", head of a branch of MI5 - a character based on real life British spymaster Maxwell Knight.
Part of his cover is work for a spiritualist magazine, as he investigates the case of Helen Duncan, a medium whose spirit messages include classified information about the sinking of
The Nerd Daily
Mar 17, 2018 rated it it was ok
Originally posted on The Nerd Daily | Review by Declan Green
It is an intriguing premise – an underground world of disappearing witches, theatrical mediums, and real historical figures, all contained within a World War II setting. But unfortunately Cathi Unsworth’s recent historical noir novel That Old Black Magic doesn’t quite reach its potential, spreading itself too thinly across subplots and under-developed characters.

Driving this story along is Detective Sergeant Ross Spooner, a persistent p
Dec 13, 2018 marked it as my-library
I am uncertain what score to give this book (although that is often the case with me). It was not a life-changing book, but at the same time it was the perfect book to kick off my holiday, and I enjoyed it immensely all the way through. It had that kind of atmosphere that I just wanted to steep in, and Cathi Unsworth was able to conjure up a '40ies flavour very elegantly by adding just the right details, rather than becoming overly descriptive and lapsing into prolixity.

It was the premise of the
Sid Nuncius
Mar 08, 2018 rated it it was ok
Cathi Unsworth is a very good writer whose previous work I have liked very much, but I'm sorry to say that That Old Black Magic was a severe disappointment.

Set in 1942, the plot is about Nazi spies who use spiritualist and other occult circles for their nefarious ends. There is an engaging protagonist in Spooner, a policeman turned undercover agent who sets out to unravel the mystery, but apart from that I found very little to keep me reading here. The pace is funereally slow, the plot is convol
Jan 21, 2018 rated it liked it
All the way through this book I felt that there was a fascinating and well researched story waiting to grab me; witchcraft, the 1940's, the world of theatre and murder should have added up to a knock out read. Instead I often found myself confused by the little story lines that seemed to lead nowhere and were too bogged down in the details to capture my attention. There were also too many characters for me to really immerse myself in the plot, and those that were critical to the plot seemed to f ...more
Mar 23, 2018 rated it liked it
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked up this book, but That Old Black Magic ended up being such a skilful blend of non-fiction and fantasy that it had me scrambling for my phone to check up on the events that I was reading about. With witches, mediums, MI5 and wartime England all mashed into one novel, it’s fair to say that this book was stunningly ambitious from the get-go. Unfortunately, combining all the themes into one is a magic trick that doesn’t quite pay off.
The main story plu
Abby Slater- Fairbrother
Mar 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
I liked the sound of this novel so much, that before it had even arrived I had ordered another of the authors novels. The combination of the ww2 era, jazz and the occult, are clear winners for me! The second world war is my favourite era within historical fiction. I have a passion for jazz music and the occult adds the mystery!

The synopsis sounds amazing and at the point of the black magic themes. I was literally screaming ‘take my money’ to the Amazon page. I thought that the author may use th
Jack Stark
Jun 23, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: mystery, netgalley
You can read my more in depth review of this on my blog - Random Melon Reads!

I received a copy of this from Netgalley. My thanks to the publisher for this opportunity. These are my honest thoughts of the book.

There was very little in this that kept me intrigued or wanting to go on. I could have quite happily left this at 80% and not come back to it. The writing is rather bland and lacks any prose. It’s very direct and bland.

I was looking for a fun story that would explore the Bella in the Wych
Nov 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Loved this. Could not put it down. All my favourite things in one book - witchcraft, mediums, spies, mystery, music hall and circus entertainers and all set during WW2 and a Harry Price cameo. One happy reader here.
Nov 07, 2017 rated it it was ok
I had previously rally enjoyed Cathi Unsworth’s Weirdo so I came to That Old Black Magic with high hopes. I expected a nourish plot uncovering a sinister underbelly to theatrical witchcraft and séances, set in the Second World War. And I suppose that’s what I got. The trouble is, I was never really convinced by any of it, and for much of the journey I was completely confused by it.

This all starts with a German spy parachuting into Britain in the dead of night, caught because he breaks his leg on
Nov 01, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2017, netgalley
Within That Old Black Magic, Cathi Unsworth has attempted to amalgamate various real-life historical stories/events into a fictional narrative. The second world war acts as a backdrop to supernatural investigations and seemingly, a cult of witches.

I had hoped that this book would be a well-written literary foray into the supernatural genre but unfortunately (and almost as expected), I was greatly disappointed. I found the writing style to be disjointed and messy, often leaving me confused about
Leonie Hinch
Oct 19, 2017 rated it liked it
Thank you to Netgalley, the publisher and Cathi Unsworth for my ARC of That Old Black Magic.

I’m quite on the fence with this book, rounding it off at a safe 3* so I’m going to break this review into 3 parts. A synopsis, what I liked and what I think could have been done better.

So first off, the storyline/synopsis. The story is mostly about witchcraft and spiritualism during World War II, it also features spies, MI5 agents and reporters. It follows the life of a German spy who is also a witch,
Feb 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
Partly based on fact, this book takes the historical fiction genre turns it inside out and then some. In 1943 some boys found the body of a woman stuffed into a tree, within days the now infamous graffiti "Who put Bella in the Wych Elm" started popping up around the Midlands. Rumours have long persisted about Bella's identity and killer and this book puts a noir based tinge on the story.

Ross Spooner is a undercover police detective working during World War 2. Skilled at his work mainly due to h
Andy Weston
Whereas this is an interesting piece of historical writing that merges fact and fiction, it is very light on the ‘mystery’ side. The ‘crime’ element of the book doesn’t really work at all, which is a pity, as to bring all that together successfully would have been some achievement.

The storyline revolves around the real life Hagley Woods Murder of 1943 and the events leading up to the 1944 trial of Helen Duncan; a Scottish medium who was one of the last people to be tried under the Witchcraft Ac
Victoria Ellis
I know that I have been very kindly sent this book by the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for a review, and as a result should be preparing a full review for you guys, but I’m not. I’m sorry to say that at 56% I am DNFing That Old Black Magic, and I feel terrible about it. I thought that the prologue, seance was great, but it was uphill from there. The plot was over saturated, and far too many characters to keep track of. I like to know what I’m getting into, and will track the books progr ...more
Daniel Christensen
Dec 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: pulp
WWII, seances, Nazis
I liked a lot about this.
The magic element (was it even there???) was nicely understated, but the whole thing was still really spooky.
I liked the evolution of the main character, and I kept guessing (wrongly) throughout.
I thought it lost it's way a bit in the middle third (lots of characters, extra details...).
Apparently based on real-life-ish events.
Apr 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This latest work by Cathi Unsworth is both engaging and fascinating. Mixing fact with fiction in World War 2 England, and throw in some old school spiritualism and you have a cracker of a story.
Dec 18, 2017 rated it liked it
"Used to be the Variety circuit, before the war," said Lexy. "Now all the beaches are full of mines and barbed wire. The people who’re left there aren’t having a good time any more. Vulnerable to Jerry attack from the sea and where the Luftwaffe get rid of all their unused bombs on their way home. Easy prey for spook racketeers." [loc 1818]

That Old Black Magic (review copy received from Netgalley in exchange for this honest review) begins in January 1941, when medium Helen Duncan apparently chan
Nia Ireland
Dec 26, 2017 rated it it was ok
Truth be told, I didn't really enjoy this book and the writing style was too dry and incredibly confusing for my tastes. I lost track of what was going on a few times and found that I didn't really care enough to go back and muddle it out.

This book takes place in Britain during WW2, an undercover police investigator is trying to locate a missing woman and investigate the validity of a medium (why not?). I was expecting this book to be rich with atmosphere, characterisation and possibly a strong
Mar 08, 2018 rated it liked it
2.5* http://greatreadsandtealeaves.blogspo...

I was attracted to this book as it was based around two incidents from history: the Hagley Woods Murder of 1943; and also, the events leading up to the 1944 trial of Helen Duncan, a Scottish medium ( one of the last people convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735). Add into the mixture, World War II and Nazi spies and one would think you were on a winner.

The positives of this book was indeed the concept. A mixture of witchcraft and German spies set
Declan Green
Feb 24, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: the-nerd-daily
It is an intriguing premise – an underground world of disappearing witches, theatrical mediums, and real historical figures, all contained within a World War II setting. But unfortunately Cathi Unsworth’s recent historical noir novel ‘That Old Black Magic’ doesn’t quite reach its potential, spreading itself too thinly across subplots and under-developed characters.

Driving this story along is Detective Sergeant Ross Spooner, a persistent police officer with a penchant for undercover operations. S
Jo-anne Atkinson
Apr 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Ross Spooner is an undercover agent working for MI5 when he is asked to look at an unusual case. A German spy has been captured and he is babbling about black magic and another agent has gone insane talking about witches. Spooner is drawn into a world where the Third Reich's obsession with the supernatural is causing chaos, on a more mundane level a spiritualist in Portsmouth is claiming to channel the spirits of dead navy personnel to their families whilst the news of battle is still a secret.

Dec 17, 2018 rated it did not like it
I'd heard lots of good things about Cathi Unsworth, so I can only assume this dull splicing of Dennis Wheatley and 'Foyle's War' is an aberration. Combining two fascinating stories from the Second World War with a backdrop of espionage and the occult ought to make for a terrific read, but the book never gets out of the blocks. Clunky exposition, at least one cliché a page (yes, it really does 'all go black' when someone is coshed on the head), laboured dialogue, very little sense of place or per ...more
Mar 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
A stunning mix of historical fact and fiction, this book will have you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.
It’s so interesting to read about this period in time, especially when it mentions places that I know now- it’s brilliantly written so that I could perfectly picture how things were in the past.
I think this book would be an excellent choice for Bookclub’s as there’s so many different aspects to it that could be talked about, snd certain people will prefer one stand of the story
Apr 23, 2018 rated it liked it
I have read many crime fiction novels and quite a few spiritualism/witchcraft novels but never one that combines both. That Old Black Magic is a fictional novel that also has elements of fact, the body found in a tree being one of them, along with some characters who did exist. One of them, Helen Duncan, I had never heard of, until she was the answer to a question on a quiz show on TV a few days before I started reading this novel.
It is a book where you really need to concentrate, there are many
Helen Carolan
Jun 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Enjoyed this one. Set during the second world war it tells the story of a German spy ring operating in England. Their shared love of everything to do with the occult makes them dangerous adversaries. When Clara their ringleader goes missing Ross Spooner is sent to investigate the group and soon finds himself mixing with musicians, magicians,ghost hunters and other secret service operatives. The search for Clara leads to a frightening finale for spooner. Terrific read.
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Cathi Unsworth moved to Ladbroke Grove in 1987 and has stayed there ever since. She began a career in rock writing with Sounds and Melody Maker, before co-editing the arts journal Purr and then Bizarre magazine. Her first novel, The Not Knowing, was published by Serpent's Tail in August 2005.

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