Author of the Month

Name: Syd Moore

First Novel: The Drowning Pool

Most Recent Book: Strange Magic

'I promise, this book will hold you spellbound!'

Rosie Strange, from the Leytonstone Benefit Fraud office, has just come into an unusual inheritance: The Great Essex Witch Museum. The life’s work of her estranged grandfather Septimus, this dilapidated building stands on the outskirts of Adder’s Fork, a one-pub village on the way to Chelmsford that’s ripe for redevelopment. Or so Rosie thinks, when she first arrives to claim it. But her notions of a quick sale to property developers dissolve into the ether as she steps over the threshold to find curator Sam Stone in earnest discussion with TV historian, Dr George Chin. Chin is offering a large financial reward if the museum can locate the mortal remains of Ursula Cadence, a local woman who was put to death for practicing sorcery in 1582, amid a wave of witch-hunting hysteria.

Dr Chin’s quest is urgent – he believes the relics are the only way of curing a case of demonic possession. Eight-year-old Max Harris fell out of a tree a month earlier and went into a coma. Now he is speaking in 16th-century English and claiming to be Ursula’s son, George. Advised by maverick priest, the Reverend Kaspar, Max’s family believe the only way to get their son back is to reunite his host spirit with his mother. In the twitch of a black cat’s tail, Rosie finds herself joining Sam on a frantic journey across Southern England and centuries of history into real peril, when it becomes clear they are not the only ones on the trail of them bones – putting those tough, Essex girl instincts she had previously thought had nothing to do with supernatural powers to their full use.

Syd Moore’s previous books, ‘The Drowning Pool’ and ‘Witch Hunt’ drew deeply on local history to recast the stories of Southend’s sea witch, Sarah Moore and the bloody reign of Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins into contemporary settings with strong crime fiction narratives. It was the author’s greatest wish to curate an exhibition on the Essex witch trials, and with ‘Strange Magic’, she has found a potent way of realising that aim in the fictional form of Rosie Strange and her Great Essex Witch Museum, through which she is at liberty to both inform the reader of her home county’s dark history and the many misconceptions we still have about witchcraft, while entertaining us with a cast of memorable characters.

Moore draws a link between women like Ursula Cadence, persecuted for standing outside society in a dangerous time to be different, and the wise-cracking, appearance-conscious Essex Girl, Rosie, whose journey through these pages is also a revelation of her own concealed past and ancestral attributes. Rosie allows Moore’s sense of humour full vent, as we follow her attempts to analyse the weird new world she has found herself in, drawn through the plight of Max Harris and the charisma of Sam Stone, the enigmatic curator who was her grandfather’s right-hand man, into a world of mystery and danger she had only seen faint glimmers of before. Of course, her skills in reading, detecting and detaining benefit cheats come into play, as she and Sam encounter a richly-drawn pageant of crusty pub locals, double-dealing lawyers, intense museum curators and debonair secret agents along the way.

Moore charts a skilful path between suggestions of the supernatural and the darker urges of mortal men. She has clearly amassed a large amount of research, but all this is wielded with a light touch, flowing into the plot without disturbing the fast pace of the action, that is helped along its way by Moore’s evocative depictions of her settings. Best of all are the scenes at the book’s nail-biting denouement, where visions of high dudgeon in turreted stately homes, black-caped covens and renegade clergymen leading desperate rituals in desolate churchyards recall the very master of the Black Magic box, Dennis Wheatley. Though, as with kindred spirit Christopher Fowler and his magisterial Bryant & May series, Moore deploys a frisson of delightful wit to ice the thrill of all these chills. ‘Strange Magic’ is a brilliant beginning to a highly original new series. I promise, this book will hold you spellbound!

Reviewed by: C.U.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) ‘Strange Magic’ is the opening in a new series centred around the Great Essex Witch Museum – a highly original concept! How did you come up with the idea?
I’d been thinking a lot about doing something to commemorate the lives lost to the witch hunts (still am). So I put together an application for a grant to conduct ‘research and development’ into the possibility of creating a witchcraft exhibition. Once I had undertaken this, I intended to propose the idea to my local council to see if they might include it in their plans for a new museum on the Cliffs along Southend seafront. Unfortunately, I wasn’t successful in my application. Nevertheless I am a stubborn old bird and carried on doing my own research anyway, visiting relevant exhibitions and attractions but also on my trips discovering crazy pubs and loads of unexpected little museums up and down the country, which had been created by eccentric individuals with obsessions. I love how in this country we celebrate the curious and was delighted by such gems as Teapot World, The World’s Tallest Hedge and the House on the Hill Toy Museum. Slowly an idea began to form – if I couldn’t build an Essex Witch Museum with bricks and mortar, I’d create a fictional one instead.

I’m really so gratified by feedback about how ‘real’ it feels to readers. In fact one of the OneWorld publishing team suggested I hold my launch party there. Give me a few years and I just might!
2) Your leading lady Rosie Strange is a very likeable character – a no-nonsense Essex girl whose day job is to catch benefit cheats – drawn into this very mysterious world of intrigue via her inheritance of the museum. Her scepticism about everything she starts to learn here runs counter to some of her deeper instincts, which is what makes her so realistic. How much is she a reflection of your own attitude towards the worlds of magic and the paranormal?
Ha! That’s a good question. Rosie is much more straight talking and bolder than I am, for sure! But with regards to magic and the supernatural, I think I err more on the side of Sam Stone, the curator of the museum, who opines to ‘a healthy scepticism and an open mind.’ I would require solid empirical evidence before I confirmed certain supernatural phenomena. At the same time, I do think slavish scepticism can be just as blinding as faith. My own brand of scepticism, however, doesn’t stop me dancing sky-clad in sylvan groves! I’m certain of a kind of magic but not necessarily of the wand waving kind.
3) The story of Ursula Cadence is drawn from a true source, that of Ursula Kemp, who was put to death for witchcraft in 1582. How much of her real story has remained in the book, and how much is drawn from your own imagination?
I’ve kept true to Ursula Kemp’s sad tale throughout her witch hunt and persecution. I don’t want to give any spoilers away so I’ll say ‘the shocking thing’ that happened to her immediately after death was reported by the late Cecil Williamson from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle. It is pretty horrible and I kind of hope it wasn’t true. I didn’t find any other evidence to corroborate it. However, the rediscovery of her remains in the 1920s is accurately conveyed by reportage from the local paper. And what happened in the sixties too can be verified by newsreels. Poetic license comes into play when she is stolen. However, the real life mystery surrounding the remains of Ursula Kemp is absolutely riveting with just as many twists, turns and shocking revelations as my fiction. The filmmaker, John Worland, has documented this in Ursula Kemp: The Witch Who Wouldn’t Stay Buried. I’d recommend anyone interested to check it out here Ursula Kemp.
4) Rosie and Sam Stone, the curator of the Witch Museum, travel to the Witch Museum in Boscastle in your story. Such a place exists in real life, and is credited in your acknowledgements. It was founded by Cecil Williamson, who, in the book worked as a secret service agent during the War, infiltrating sects and societies with magical interests shared by the Nazis. I know such work did take place, but was the real Cecil actually involved in it?
Cecil Williamson is a truly captivating character. When visiting the Witch Museum to research Ursula Cadence I learned that he had worked in the film industry and had developed quite a Black Book of contacts in the German film world. Consequently just before the outbreak of the Second World War he was sent over there. It was part of his remit to penetrate German occult circles and societies, which he did, and report his intelligence back to MI6. But this was just the start of his activities. He went on to do a lot more. Unfortunately we don’t know a huge amount about further activities as it is still classified. According to the über-knowledgeable Joyce Froome, assistant curator at the Museum, Graham King who took over from Williamson tells a tantalising tale of going to Cecil’s home after he had died to acquire some of the magical objects from Cecil’s private collection for the museum. While he was there he noticed a whole room full of boxes all marked ‘top secret’. According to Joyce, he very patriotically thought, ‘Well, I’d better not look in those then.’ With remarkable restraint he didn’t open them and they were consequently destroyed. I would have been there with my scissors to be sure, but it’s certainly an intriguing story. Steve Patterson’s book, Cecil Williamson’s Book of Witchcraft, includes a biographical section on the man himself.
5) You draw a parallel between the women of the past, particularly persecuted in your home county of Essex, who were tortured and killed for basically standing out from society and the stereotypical ‘Essex Girl’. Is it your aim not just to debunk certain stereotypes but also to show a kind of solidarity through the ages?
Absolutely! And I’m delighted that you’ve picked up on it. Anyone who has ever felt they are ‘on the outside’ or has been labelled as ‘not quite the norm’ (which is pretty much everyone I know, incidentally) understands how difficult it is being different. But I, personally love it. I hate homogeneity. I prefer freakishness. However, yes I do feel a connection to the women of the past. Sometimes it comes with a sense of shame and sadness, sometimes a sense of anger. There’s a great quote, from author Tish Tawer, that a reader sent to me a couple of months ago which made me smile. It read: ‘We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.’ I love that sentiment – defiance, commemoration and solidarity. Perfect.
6) I think your books are important for giving people a sense of our shared history that might otherwise have been forgotten – but also, I get the feeling they are a total blast to write. How much did you enjoy writing this book, and does it in any way reflect the clandestine pleasures of a childhood spent reading The Devil Rides Out?
Thank you. We’re living through rather turbulent times at the moment and it’s important to remember where we have gone in the past when intolerance and bullying ran unchecked. I always wanted to write books that would appeal to a lot of people and which have big ideas and important messages in them and which don’t sound ‘preachy’. Rosie Strange has enabled me to do this, with her down-to-Earth and wry approach to life. I have loved writing the Essex Witch Museum books with her riding shotgun alongside me. At the moment I’m sinking into Book 3, Strange Fascination, and I am having such a great time writing it. So far there’s a party, lots of prosecco and a pitchfork. And of course, ghostly sightings and the witch legend of Black Anne.

Funnily enough I re-read ‘The Devil Rides Out’ while I was writing ‘Strange Magic’. Incidentally Wheatley worked with Williamson and Ian Fleming in the war. But I spent my childhood reading ‘Misty’. It was a girls’ comic full of weird tales and interviews with ‘Doctor Who’ characters and actors like Gil Gerrard (Buck Rogers), a kind of kiddy version of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, which was the talk of the grown-ups at the time. I remember stories such as ‘Jolly’s Hockey Stick’ (possessed sports equipment), ‘Rita, My Robot Friend’ (a glimpse of the future), ‘The Pier that Wouldn’t Die’ (suitably apt for a junior Southender) and other ‘Strange Stories from the Mists’. Unfortunately after a few years, some bright spark decided that was quite enough of that sort of thing and merged ‘Misty’ with the perky and bright eyed ‘Jinty’. Before you could say ‘conventional mainstream’ the pages were crammed with stories about ‘Sandy and Steve,’ some rubbish about a teenage gymnast and a ‘How to Get Married’ series entitled ‘Something Borrowed, Something Blue.’ I ditched it and moved on to Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier and my dad’s John Wyndham books (which I LOVED) and attempted Herman Hesse who I found more challenging. I also tried to watch as much Hammer Horror as my parents would allow. It wasn’t a lot.
7) For writers who are just starting out on their ‘novel journey’, what one piece of advice would you give?
Finish the book. Don’t give up and start another one. See it through. Even if it’s not published, everything you have learnt is valuable. I wrote three novels that weren’t published before I managed to secure a deal for ‘The Drowning Pool’. With writing, I feel, you improve all the time.
8) Are you a fan of crime fiction in general? What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you and would take with you to a desert island?
I love crime fiction indeed. I work part time for an arts charity and there are three of us who regularly bring in crime books to read/swap/discuss. Same goes for my Dad and Stepmum. We all love a bit of crime to get our teeth into and pass on the good ones. I’ve just sent over Rattle, which is an excellent debut by fellow Essex Gal, Fiona Cummins.

But my top three for a desert island would have to be my dog-eared old favourites, none of which are particularly conventional crime novels – Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, which is just fantastic. What can I say that hasn’t already been said about it? A great first with juicy characters, a complex plot and lovely romantic Victorian lace dresses. What’s not to like?

I read Miss Smilia’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg when I was working in a bookshop in noisy, sweaty, Aussie Earl’s Court. It was one of the first European translations I had read and I was absolutely blown away by how I was so easily and instantly immersed into such a different culture. It’s also beautifully written and translated. Just the thought of its coolness and logic makes me look forward to the imminent shipwreck.

I think I read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey when I was at school. I’m grateful that it ignited a real and lifelong interest in history that I don’t really think I had been conscious of before.

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