It's not often you come across a book that manages to combine solid entertainment with any degree of intellectual stimulation, but H.R. Knight's _What Rough Beast_ is just such an animal. Make no mistake, there is nothing guilty about the pleasure this work provides. On the one hand it is a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying read, full of interesting characters, fast-paced action, intriguing mysteries and harrowing horror (including the occasional dollop of over-the-top gore) and can easily be enjoyed for those qualities and nothing more. Yet it is also a well-imagined, well-researched, and completely period-authentic historical novel that actually manages to say something important about the human condition -- specifically about mankind's need to embrace all aspects of its fractured psyche if anything like a peaceful society is ever to exist -- without even once sounding dry, preachy or moralizing. (Fans of Carl Jung will be intrigued by the way the novel mirrors some of his key concepts, especially the need to integrate the Shadow with the rest of the Self.)
I can't speak to the historical accuracy of Knight's characterization of Arthur Conan Doyle, but artistically it is spot-on. The creator of Sherlock Holmes emerges as a rounded and likeable figure: earnest, well-meaning, valiant, full of old-fashioned virtues and prejudices ... a good man grappling uneasily and not always successfully with the conflict between his Victorian upbringing and the emerging realities of the new century. (Not to mention the suppressed realities of his own nature.) Though essentially honest he is fallible in his judgments; using him as narrator enables Knight skillfully to manipulate our perceptions of the other characters, especially the complex and charismatic figure of Maximillian Cairo, the Aleister Crowley-like magician who is the apparent villain of the piece.
The other characters are equally well conceived, particularly the brash (also vain, energetic, resourceful, loyal, and fearless) Harry Houdini, and the beautiful (also sensual, conflicted, emancipated, and intriguing) Justine Luce. Honorable mention must also go to the character of Mackleston, and to a lesser extent that of Gaylord, for the sensitive handling of a topic that even today provokes controversy in some quarters. (Though I have to admit the latter's name made me wince -- a little too obvious for my liking!)
Having said all that, let me emphasize once more this is a FUN book to read. Lots of action, lots of suspense, even a few mildly titillating scenes ... what's not to love?
All in all a splendid book -- one of those rare works that not only stands up to but rewards a second reading. I recommend it highly.