Narrated by Gary Furlong
K.J. Charles’ The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal is a collection of wonderfully imaginative, well-written and downright spooky tales of ghostly goings on and supernatural shenanigans set in the late Victorian era featuring ghost-hunter extraordinaire, Simon Feximal, and his chronicler and long-term companion Robert Caldwell. The author draws on ancient legends and late Victorian sensation fiction for inspiration and has crafted a set of original and compelling creations while also charting the development of the relationship between her two protagonists, a lasting partnership built on a solid foundation of love and respect that endures through dark days and the direst of adversity.
When we first meet Robert Caldwell, he is a making a name for himself as a journalist for The Chronicle. He has recently inherited old, dilapidated Caldwell Place and decides to sell it rather than live there. The only problem is that it appears to be haunted – and when the walls start bleeding, Robert realises he’s got to do something about it before he can even think of putting the place up for sale. So, he calls in the renowned ghost-hunter Simon Feximal in the hope that he will be able to get rid of his unwanted, ghoulish guest, and is immediately struck by Simon’s imposing form and air of command. Feximal clearly knows what he’s doing – but both he and Robert have reckoned without the strength of a spirit long denied its desires, and a highly-charged, passionate encounter ensues which sends the mischievous spirit packing and sees our principals left to their own – most pleasurable – devices.
Weeks later, Robert has heard nothing from Simon and is angered by the thought that perhaps the other man thought Robert had offered sex as payment for his services. He has just decided he never wants to see Simon again when his editor sends him to Winchester to find out what he can about a couple of mysterious deaths. And they really are mysterious. Robert is confronted with something the like of which he’s never seen or imagined; both bodies are simply covered in butterflies, and, even more odd, the victims appear to have been suffocated by them. Robert had hoped to obtain an appointment with a local amateur lepidopterist to talk with him about the butterflies, but the man has declined to see him, and he is pondering his next move when he suddenly and unexpectedly comes to face with Simon. This second meeting – at which Robert realises he has badly misjudged Simon – marks a new beginning for the pair, as they agree to work together to get to the bottom of the mystery of the butterfly killings. I’m not going to spoil the story – other than to say that I’ll never look at a butterfly the same way again! – but it’s another splendidly crafted, creepy and sexy little gem. I loved the way that Simon and Robert’s different skills are shown to complement each other, and how the author reveals just a little more about Simon and the way he feels about Robert:
“… no other man has ever held on to me as though he were lost in darkness, as though my body were his last connection to the light.”
Their relationship continues to develop through the rest of the stories, which take place over a four or five year period, and see them growing ever closer as they face down serious threats from beings both natural and supernatural. In a thread running through the next few stories, we become aware that not all ghost-hunters and occultists are as … enlightened as Simon and that there are evil forces at work in this world as well as in the world beneath – a concept that will become more important later on and which is a strong element of Ms. Charles’ current Green Men series. We meet the seriously horrible Dr. Berry (even typing his name makes me shudder!), and the indomitable Miss Kay, who, along with Simon, are called to exorcise the spirits of long-dead children from a ducal residence. Robert falls foul of a shadowy government department and the mysterious Mr. Parker, there’s an encounter with London’s Rat Queen, the case of the Brother’s Barrel – and one character gets his just desserts from the ghostly Wild Hunt… each story is a precisely crafted piece of perfection, and although this is a collection of short stories, the writing flows so organically as to make the book feel like a full-length novel. The individual tales are a terrific nod to the ghost stories of writers like Charles Dickens and M.R. James – and I just adored the inclusion of the character of Dr. Karswell, from James’ Casting the Runes (which was made into one of my favourite horror movies – Night of the Demon – in the 1950s). But I hasten to add that the author hasn’t just plucked a random character from a random story; no, the inclusion of Karswell makes perfect sense and is integral to the narrative.
Above all, however, is the beautifully drawn relationship between two men who are soul-mates in every sense. By the end of the book – which in itself is incredibly poignant – they have been together through thick and thin for twenty-three years, and Robert’s final letter, carrying his explanation as to why he has chosen to write this “Secret” Casebook telling of the true nature of the relationship between him and Simon, is both beautiful and heart-breaking.
I was delighted when I saw Gary Furlong’s name attached to this project and am pleased to say that his work on this audiobook is quite possibly his best to date. His character differentiation, his pacing, and his portrayals of the two central characters are all superb, and I could happily have gone back to the beginning and listened to the entire thing all over again as soon as I’d finished. His interpretation of Robert is particularly fine – using a tone and pitch close to his own, he captures Robert’s determination, his courage, his naughty sense of humour and his unwavering devotion to the man he loves. A drop in pitch and the addition of some weight and resonance to voice Simon – who is described as having the build of a heavyweight boxer – works very well to conjure the image of a large, competent (and sometimes scary!) man. We only ever see Simon through Robert’s eyes, yet both author and narrator do a splendid job of showing us the truth of the man, his integrity, his dedication, his awkwardness and the strength and depth of his love for Robert.
The only reason for the A- and not a straight A grade for the narration is down to a handful of mispronunciations; for example, in Bermondsey (a district in South London) the stress is on the first syllable, and not the second, and for some reason, he pronounces Salisbury as it is spelled and not as “Salls-bury” which is how it is actually said. I’m surprised these things weren’t picked up in post-production and fixed, but while they jarred a bit, they didn’t spoil my enjoyment of what is a truly wonderful audio experience. If you’ve even the slightest interest in paranormal romance, you really need to listen to The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal.
TITLE: The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal
AUTHOR: K. J. Charles
NARRATED BY: Gary Furlong
GENRE: Historical/Paranormal Romance
STEAM FACTOR: 5
REVIEWER: CazBuy The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by K. J. Charles on Amazon