The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler (book review).

London, September 1919. The story, ‘The Arcanum’, unfolds with a death. At first it seems to be a normal accident which kills Konstantin Duvall in a foggy September night, but Arthur Conan Doyle suspects early on that his old friend and mentor has been murdered. Duvall has been the leader of an occult society called The Arcanum, with Doyle one of its members.

After a few enquiries and the confirmation of his suspicions, he visits the hidden library of the Arcanum in the British Museum to find the Book Of Enoch, part of the Biblical triad, missing. Only one copy exists of this manuscript and the secrets it holds were the real cause of the Great War. After The Arcanum got their hands on it in an earlier, untold adventure, Duvall hid it in The Arcanum library to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. The book’s disappearance from its hiding place may have dire consequences, so Doyle journeys to New York to gather the rest of The Arcanum and to find the book again.

Trying at first to find H.P. Lovecraft, Doyle fast becomes a suspect in the grisly murders which terrorise the citizens of New York. He soon finds Lovecraft in an asylum because the police not only suspects the young horror author of murder but believes him quite mad as well. Doyle meets with the other two members of The Arcanum, Harry Houdini and the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. Together, they help Lovecraft escape before he can be murdered by their enemy. They piece together that the Book Of Enoch tells of a lost tribe of angels wandering the Earth since the fall of Lucifer. This tribe may be the last chance for the Lord of Lies to get back into heaven. Hunted by demons and the police alike, The Arcanum try to find their enemy before he can complete his diabolical plan and bring chaos to the whole world.

‘The Arcanum’ is all in all a well-written supernatural thriller and a solid read, ideal for an afternoon at the beach or in front of a fireplace. Its plot is quite convincing, even if it contains no genuine surprises apart from a twist right at the end which I at least didn’t foresee. A not quite well handled part of the novel is the namedropping. Historical novels tend a bit to do that and Thomas Wheeler is no exception. He tried to cram nearly everyone who has a name in 1920s occult society into his novel, with mixed results. Where Wheeler on the other hand excels are the descriptions of chases which are nearly cinematographic. No wonder, since Thomas Wheeler is an accomplished screenwriter.

Personally, I liked the novel. It’s fun to read, contains some real characters of the time and has a slightly steampunky touch because of a gadget Lovecraft uses. I would have loved to read about some of the earlier adventures of The Arcanum, but this novel, having been published in 2005 there seems to be small hope for a follow-up.

Sven Scheurer

(pub: Bantam Spectra. 325 page enlarged paperback. Price: $ 14.00 (US), $21.00 (CAN). ISBN: 0-553-38199-7)
check out website: www.bantamdell.com

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