A Review of A Séance for Wicked King Death by Coy Hall

By Jesse Hilson

When I heard that Coy Hall’s crime novel A Séance for Wicked King Death was set in the world of spiritualist scammers in the 1950s, I was fully onboard to somehow get a copy and read it. The premise called out to me. I like to think of myself as a lover of pulp fiction, or at least some of its trappings. Lurid hard-boiled stories with a tinge of the bizarre are right up my nightmare alley.

I was pleased by this quicksilver novel of con artists on the fringes. I had seen blurbs likening the book to Dashiell Hammett and I could certainly see a Maltese Falcon or two in the dialogue. For me a period crime novel has got to have the dialogue (contemporary ones too of course, but especially a caper set in a historical time period other than our own). If I can’t hear the dialogue ringing out with the tones of plausibility, it takes me right out of the story. It seems to fall under the heading of “Research.” There are hours and hours of film noirs to be consulted and radio programs like Suspense! for free on YouTube. No excuse for lazy efforts at dialogue. You know who you are out there in hard-boiled noir writer land.

Hall does the dialogue and the plotting and the fight scenes in boffo style. I tore through the book over three or four days which for me is fast. I lose interest like a bored countess drifting through a casino full of losers. You need to score for me to finish reading your book. Hall can do that.

An ex-con who used to fleece rich dunces gullible for the occult named Royce Pembrook gets drawn into a tangled scheme through an old acquaintance. Pembrook was a talented actor who knew how to fool people seeking evidence of loved ones beyond the grave—séances with the Beyond. The novel traces his pathway into a new scenario full of double crosses and violence and never slouches when it comes to plot, setting, and character. Pembrook’s voice both as a first-person narrator and a speaking role is so true to the genre, it’s a breath of fresh air after some disappointing half-stepping noir affairs I have seen.

I won’t give away more except to say that this is a polished rendition of the pulpy noir story as seen in magazines of old like Black Mask or Manhunt. Recommended.

Jesse Hilson lives and works in the Catskills in New York State. His work, which includes fiction, poetry, art, comics, essays, and book reviews, has been or will be published at Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, Expat Press, Hobart, Misery Tourism, Excuse Me Mag, Pink Plastic House, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Exacting Clam, Don’t Submit, Bruiser and elsewhere, including several appearances on L’étranger Radio Panik 105.4 (Brussels). He has written two novels: Blood Trip (Close to the Bone UK) and The Tattletales (Prism Thread) and a poetry chapbook Handcuffing the Venus De Milo (Bullshit Lit). In 2024 Anxiety Press is slated to publish a short story collection She Took Her Half Out the Middle. He can be found on X and Instagram at @platelet60.