The Spirit Engineer creates suspense against a backdrop of Edwardian Belfast and spiritualism
Unsurprisingly, my favorite genre of books is usually politics. If not politics, history, if not travel or sport.
So when I was asked to read and critique a novel that involves spiritualism, I was initially reluctant.
But when the relevant book manages to include Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Titanic, The Great War, An Emerging Irish Nation, two real protagonists, and takes place in Edwardian Belfast, it has become a somewhat irresistible invitation.
The engineer of the mind by AJ West is, as they say, something quite different. West is an award-winning former BBC journalist who has worked extensively in Northern Ireland.
The narrative is based on the cult of spiritualism that grew rapidly during the Great War, but ultimately the story is one of tragedy, repression, superstition, mental breakdown, domestic violence, rigid class structures and, of course, murder.
Some facts. There are two main protagonists. The first is William Jackson Crawford who is also the narrator of the book. Crawford really did exist and lived in Belfast.
He was professor of engineering at the former Belfast Municipal Technical College and Queen’s University. Crawford was one of an aspiring class in the bustling industrial metropolis of Belfast.
The second is Kathleen Goligher. She was a medium of some renown and came from a family of spiritualists and lovers of the mystical arts.
For those in the mainstream, they were crooks and crooks dealers trading in the misery of mourners.
The infamous Goligher Circle has been the subject of extensive investigation.
Belfast at that time was riven by bigotry – some things never change …
The book is a slow burner, but the short chapters are great for busy commuters. A reader can quickly flip through the technical elements of engineering and even spiritualism and quickly take action. Corn The engineer of the mind makes unexpected detours, seducing the reader.
Spiritualism was a real obsession in the 1900s, especially for the middle classes. For some it was a harmless board game. For true believers, it was a desperate attempt to face the loss and find solace.
It was a strange sect, mixing aspects of Christianity with the occult.
The unsinkable Titanic had sunk. Belfast was in mourning. The Great War devoured a generation of young men, leaving not only empty chairs in many homes, but literally thousands of broken hearts, all in need of answers to inexplicable losses. Belfast, Crawford tells us, “was hiding in its own madness”.
The book weaves its way through a turbulent city like fabrics sewn together in the gloomy Victorian factories of Belfast. Catholics and Protestants live side by side in streets divided by these mills. Together and yet separate. Seems familiar?
The engineer of the mind also has an earthy humor that not everyone will appreciate. But the book is far from light.
There is a wasp character almost resembling Wilde in the midst of this psychopathic drama in the form of Lady Adelia Carter.
Lady Carter is a pompous and caustic widow who informs the reader that in her marriage there were “very few vain” because it was “enrichment of the spirit”.
The valiant lady said of the late Lord Carter: “He made me happy every night with his thesaurus.”
Some characters are a bit too predictable but there is nothing predictable about the end.
There are no heroes or villains in the traditional sense in this book. There are only the deceivers, the deceived and the deceivers. There is considerable mind play for the reader in this book as one tries to navigate the minds of the narrator and the main protagonist.
Harry Houdini once said: “What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes”. And it is very well thus in The engineer of the mind.
There is nothing in the book that would prompt this reviewer to a session. It’s a grotesque abuse of vulnerable people and there are a lot of vulnerable characters in this particular story.
The writer even skillfully manages to arouse a certain sympathy for these attackers and charlatans.
Towards the conclusion, the book seems to surprise the narrator, the protagonists and the reader. It is actually shocking. But it wouldn’t be fair to share the ending in a review.
Unsurprisingly, in a book that delves into the afterlife, the epilogue is titled “the beginning”.
While this critic is skeptical of spiritualism, his main cheerleader was none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, who wrote: “Where there is no imagination , there is no horror. On a first outing as a novelist, AJ West offers both in abundance.
The Spirit Engineer by AJ West is released in October by Prelude