The Spirit Engineer builds suspense against backdrop of Edwardian Belfast and spiritualism

1914 Belfast is the setting for the spine-tingling The Spirit Engineer, the debut novel from former BBC journalist AJ West. It's a captivating read, says Tom Kelly - though he still isn't tempted to go to a seance...

AJ West's debut novel The Spirit Engineer will keep you guessing until the end

UNSURPRISINGLY, my favourite genre of books are usually to do with politics. If not politics, history, and if not that travel or sport.

So when asked to read and review a novel which involves spiritualism, I was initially reluctant.

But when the book concerned manages to include Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Titanic, the Great War, an emerging Irish nation, two real life protagonists and is set in Edwardian Belfast, it became a somewhat irresistible invitation.

The Spirit Engineer by AJ West is, as they say, something quite different. West is a former awarding-winning BBC journalist who has worked extensively in Northern Ireland.

The narrative is based around the cult of spiritualism which saw a rapid growth 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 principal protagonists. The first is William Jackson Crawford who is also the narrator in the book. Crawford really existed and lived in Belfast.

He was a professor of engineering at the old Belfast Municipal Technical College and Queen's University. Crawford was part of an aspiring class in the busy industrial metropolis of Belfast.

The second is Kathleen Goligher. She was a medium of some renown and came from a family of spiritualists and dabblers in the mystic arts.

To those in the mainstream, they were shysters and con merchants trading in the misery of the bereaved.

The infamous Goligher Circle was subject to extensive investigations.

Belfast was at that time riven with sectarianism - some things never change...

The book is a slow burner but the short chapters are perfect for busy commuters. A reader can speed through the technical bits on engineering and indeed spiritualism and quickly get to the action. But The Spirit Engineer takes unexpected detours, beguiling the reader.

Spiritualism was quite an obsession in the 1900s, especially for the middle classes. To some it was a harmless parlour game. To the true believers it was a desperate attempt to cope with loss and find consolation.

It was an odd sect, mixing aspects of Christianity with the occult.

The unsinkable Titanic had sunk. Belfast was in mourning. The Great War was eating up a generation of young men, leaving not just empty chairs in many homes but literally thousands of broken hearts all with a need for answers to inexplicable loss. Belfast, Crawford tell us was "hiding in its own madness".

The Spirit Engineer is based around the cult of spiritualism and casts real-life figure William Jackson Crawford in the role of narrator

The book weaves its way though a turbulent city like the fabrics being stitched together in the dark Victorian mills of Belfast. Catholic and Protestants living cheek by jowl on streets divided by those mills. Together and yet separate. Sound familiar?

The Spirit Engineer also has some earthy humour which not everyone will appreciate. But the book is far from light-hearted.

There is an almost Wilde-like waspish character in the midst of this psycho 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 was "very little dallying at all" because it was all about "enrichment of the mind".

The doughty lady said of the deceased Lord Carter: "He pleasured me nightly with his thesaurus".

A controversial figure, Kathleen Goligher was a medium of some renown

Some of the characters are a little 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 just the deceivers, the deceived and the deceivable. There is considerable mind play for the reader in this book as one tries to navigate the mind of the narrator and principal protagonist.

Harry Houdini once said, "what the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes". And it is very much that way in The Spirit Engineer.

There is nothing in the book which would entice this reviewer to a seance. It's a grotesque abuse of the vulnerable and there are many vulnerable characters in this particular story.

The writer even skilfully manages to elicit some sympathy for those abusers and the charlatans.

Towards, the conclusion, the book seems to take the narrator, the protagonists and the reader by surprise. It's actually shocking. But it wouldn't be fair to share the ending in a review.

Not surprisingly, in a book which delves into the afterlife, the epilogue is titled 'the Beginning'.

Whilst this reviewer is a sceptic of spiritualism, its chief cheerleader was none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, who wrote: "Where there is no imagination there is no horror." In a first outing as a novelist AJ West provides both in abundance.

The Spirit Engineer by AJ West is published in October by Prelude

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