From A Library: The New Deadwardians

Friday, 27 February 2015

The New Deadwardians Cover 1
The New Deadwardians #1–8
Written by Dan Abnett
Art by INJ Culbard

October 1910. London (Zone-A). Chief Inspector George Suttle, Murder Squard, is woken in the night when his housekeeper is killed by a ‘Restless’ (a zombie). He calmly stabs it through the throat to pin it to the table before blowing its head off with his service rifle (he saw duty in the Memorial War). The reason the restless didn’t smell him when he intervened is because, as a soldier, he took ‘the cure’ during the war to fight the Restless – he is now a vampire, for the sake of God and country. No one knows where the Restless came from. It was 1861, the year Prince Albert died; the ruling classes took the cure to stop the Restless (being technically dead made them invisible to the Restless, also known as the Cursed), and the world was never the same again.

Suttle is also the only homicide detective left in the Metropolitan police because murders don’t happen any more. Until today: a body has been dumped on the Embankment in front of Parliament. The only problem is that the body was one of the Young (a vampire), and not killed in the usual ways for a vampire. How did it die? What does it mean to this society if the Young can actually die?

The corpse is identified by the prints on its one remaining hand: it is Lord Hinchcliffe, a senior advisor to the Crown, who had been arrested but released without charge over the death of a ‘Bright’ (i.e. a normal human) girl. Suttle visits his townhouse and finds a cufflink box – the cufflinks are made of silver (which is very rare) and the design matches the burn mark on Hinchcliffe’s body. Suttle also discovers that Hinchcliffe had ‘a thirst’ – he liked to visit the East End, the Bright Quarters.

Suttle travels to the East End (Zone-B), via the Aldgate checkpoint, driving past the partition where the Restless gather at the barrier fence (he and his driver have to use a car because the horse, like all animals, won’t tolerate the presence of a vampire; however, it is a rarity in the East End and indicates his status as a Young). He visits the brothel Hinchcliffe frequented until being banned and forced to find a place in Whitechapel, recommended by his artist friend, Pretendleby (obviously not a real name). Things get more complicated before he returns to Scotland Yard.

Subsequently, Suttle is asked to ‘placate’ Lady Hinchcliffe at the family estate, which means driving on the Great North Road, outside the Metropolitan Picket, into Zone-D (the Curse spread from the south coast, then the Midlands, then the North and across the world), and to Cadley House, Buckinghamshire. There Suttle sees the cufflink design on the floor of the hall in Cadley House; apparently, it is connected to a society call The Sons Of Adam. Lord Falconbridge is at Cadley House; he is a senior government minister who tries to steer Suttle’s investigation into a different direction. This leads to a poet called Salt, some sort of magic, a major incursion of the Restless and the reason for the dawn of the Deadwardian Age …

This is a very good book. It’s a great premise that allows for comparisons in the class system (upper classes: vampires; middle class: humans; lower classes: zombies) and an examination of a different culture through the prism of this inventive alternate history (people aren’t called ‘vampire’ or ‘zombie’ because it wouldn’t be a civilised thing to do). Abnett even manages to have fun with this world – when Suttle goes to Cadley House, he encounters Hinchcliffe’s daughter, a keen supporter of the movement to emancipate women to choose the Cure for themselves, because they are not allowed until after child-bearing age, and these suffragettes have a hilarious slogan, Throats For Women. In Suttle, he has an interesting protagonist, someone who has lost all normal appetites because of taking the Cure, but who discovers them again and some meaning in life by investigating a murder. Culbard’s art style takes some adjusting to – I didn’t like it at first but, as I continued to read the book, it became quite clear that the art style is the perfect choice for the material. He is a good storyteller, the period detail is excellent, and I was impressed by the variety of faces he draws to distinguish all the characters. I thoroughly enjoyed this story and hope that Abnett and Culbard get the opportunity to tell more stories in this world.

Theatre Review: Usagi Yojimbo

Monday, 8 December 2014

Usagi Yojimbo at the Southwark Playhouse
Image ©Richard Davenport

I’ve been reading the comic book adventures of Usagi Yojimbo – created, written and drawn by Stan Sakai – for over 20 years of the 30-year existence, so it was a delight to see a live-action play at the Southwark Playhouse. Like the books, the play is for all ages (from 7 years and up) and is the theatre’s Christmas family show this year. We attended the evening show while it was still in previews, so there weren’t many kids in attendance, but I think that children will enjoy the show as much as the adults who watched with us.

The narrative of the play is the ‘origin’ story for Miyamoto Usagi – Usagi is a slightly reckless youth who is sent with his friend Kenichi to the Dagora school of swordsmanship, but upon seeing the lion sensei Katsuichi dealing with some brigands, Usagi runs off to train with Katsuichi; however, Katsuichi is an unorthodox teacher and it is an arduous experience for Usagi in the mountains, but he begins to learn lessons that will last him a lifetime ...

The adaptation by Stewart Melton follows fairly close to the comic books (the bulk of the story is taken from the original comics, as collected in Usagi Yojimbo Book 2), with a little extra back story and minor adjustments to make the play a more complete experience (the play includes more interaction between Usagi and Mariko and Kenichi when they were children before Usagi goes to train, as well as having Usagi’s mother as a major character; it introduces the idea of the villainous Lord Hikiji, something that doesn’t become part of Usagi’s life until he becomes a retainer; and deviates from the book by having Usagi’s father already dead, thus providing Usagi something to live up to, instead of dying just before the battle that made Usagi a ronin as in the books, and changing the lineage of the swords that Usagi will use in adult life). This means that the characters and storyline are fairly easy to grasp for newcomers, with the delightful interplay between Usagi, Mariko and Kenicihi as children – play fighting with bamboo sticks in place of swords and arguing over who will be noble Lord Mifune and who will be evil Lord Hikiji – acting as a charming introduction to this world, and they even go out of their way to overexplain why the story is called Usagi Yojimbo.

Usagi Yojimbo at the Southwark Playhouse
Image ©Richard Davenport

If I were to describe the play in one word, it would probably be ‘joyful’. Despite the fact that there is some sword-based death and brigand-based threat, director Amy Draper has maximised the whole production to fill the viewer with positive feelings. The set design is simple yet beautiful – the stage is plain wood but cleverly conceals trapdoors that reveal story-based props (a fire with cooking pot, a vegetable garden, a mountain stream); the fact that the audience surrounds the stage on three sides, something that is almost like a dojo in some respects, means that the audience really feel part of the performance, something that is complemented by the interaction of the actors with the audience before the play starts, as well as a few points throughout the show. At the back of the stage, there are bamboo trunks hanging down from the ceiling that are cut into a line that suggests mountains, as well as a backdrop that is lit with illustrations when appropriate – winds blowing, a kite flying, a peach being sliced in two – in the style of Stan Sakai’s artwork, something that is also used on the stage floor as well, showing leaves being swept by Usagi or transforming the stage into a river to be crossed and a mountain to be climbed. The music, composed and played live by Joji Hirota at the back of the stage with drums and flutes and whistles, is sparse yet beautiful, evocative and haunting. The animal nature of the characters is provided in a beautifully simple fashion, with headgear that evokes the creature (rabbit ears, a lion’s mane), which works wonderfully with the minimal make-up to create the idea of humans as animals. The production design does a great job of bringing Usagi’s world to life, from the swords to the costumes (apart from Usagi, the other actors play multiple characters, so they have to change minor elements throughout the show), taking the audience to 17th-century Japan with ease.

The actors are all delightful in their roles: Jonathan Raggett is perfect as Usagi, headstrong but honourable, as is Dai Tabuchi as a wonderfully gruff Katsuichi; Haruka Kuroda is a shining Mariko, displaying strength, humour and understanding; Amy Ip is exactly right as Usagi’s mother, and gets the biggest laugh of the night; and Siu Hun Li is a great foil as Kenichi, providing humour and antagonism. In addition to their main roles and side roles, the actors also have to fight with swords (although there isn’t as much death as in the comic books, perhaps understandable in a family production, but I would have loved to see a theatrical representation of the ‘skull’ balloon that Sakai uses to indicate death in the comic books), choreographed brilliantly by the wonderfully named Ronin Traynor. The story may be a coming-of-age tale but the cast and backstage team ensure that there is meaning and depth inside, as well as providing an entertaining 90 minutes, leaving the audience smiling as they do a small song and dance at the end. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of the comic books or not, Usagi Yojimbo the play is a delightful evening’s entertainment and heartily recommend it.

Live Comedy – Bridget Christie: An Ungrateful Woman

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Bridget Christie’s show last year, A Bic For Her, was a double award winner and sold out at the Edinburgh Festival and the Soho Theatre (where I snagged tickets) – and this year sees her return with another show about feminism. Christie is a very funny person who makes jokes related to serious issues in order to make a point. An Ungrateful Woman is a follow-up/response to the previous show and the reaction to it, both hers and the public/media – after A Bic For Her, she was asked by a journalist what would be next for her, ‘now that she’d done feminism’, as if her writing an hour’s worth of jokes had solved 200,000 years of patriarchal dominance (as she put it).

The deft balance of self-awareness, righteous fury and humour make for an entertaining hour from a comedian who fizzes around the stage (she does a particularly animated and spot-on Russell Brand impression, an impression of someone playing snooker with their penis, and a pantomime of a woman walking on a street celebrating British sexism) but isn’t afraid to talk about female genital mutilation. Her ‘ungrateful woman’ act is because she now has to work instead of living off her husband and the response to people (i.e. men) who complain that she should feel grateful she’s allowed to talk about these issues, unlike in other countries (mostly ones run by despots and tyrants).

The main section of the show is about Christie auditioning for an advert for Muller yoghurt, which has plenty of digressions to discuss how women are perceived in the media and the advertising industry, female genital mutilation, the comparison between racism and misogyny (which led to a lovely frisson of discomfort in the audience, which Christie relished), and the attitude towards rape (I loved her line ‘my rape fantasy is more prosecutions and longer sentences’) – she makes a great point about a genuine thing that exists (AR Wear’s anti-rape underwear), which is they should be aimed at the rapists and not the victims. Her main point is about the general sexist attitude that exists in this country and how it seems to be so persuasive that it is not commented on any more – my girlfriend and I are the same age as Christie, and we feel that same ‘What happened?’ anger to the loss of the gains in equality that seemed to be achieved by the 1980s but which disappeared due to the New Laddism movement of the 1990s that set everything back to the 1970s.

The ability to combine the serious with the absurd and hilarious is the reason why Christie has achieved acclaim for this turn in her career, and you never feel like you’re being lectured – my face was aching from laughing so much – and she has a wonderful turn of phrase that can bring light into weighty ideas (her description about the uniqueness of vaginas was beautiful as well as funny). She also keeps things up to date and fresh for herself (she mentioned the Andrew Laurence Facebook rant about comedians, Nigel Farrage being a comedy character that never drops the act, and her interacting with the audience to highlight her response to a Gisele Bundchen pose in an advert which never got the right career choice to illustrate her point), which is good because she’s sold out her November run at the Soho Theatre and has had to add dates in January due to high demand. There’s a reason for that – she’s funny and she’s got something important to say: An Ungrateful Woman is another great show, and I highly recommend it.

In Praise Of Libraries

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

As should be apparent from the fact that I blog about comic books I’ve read, I enjoy reading rather a lot (in both senses: I enjoy the act of reading very much and I enjoy reading an enormous number of books). I also enjoy reading legal copies of books – I believe that creators should receive payment for their hard work, so I don’t download pirated copies. The problem is that I do not have unlimited funds with which to indulge this pleasure (nor do I have unlimited space in which to store this theoretical unlimited collection). The solution is public libraries.

Public libraries are brilliant in concept alone – the ability to freely access information and stories is the mark of an advanced civilisation (and the coalition government’s stupidity in cutting spending is one of the many reasons I hate everything they stand for) – but this panegyric/encomium is about comic books. Since I became aware that libraries started stocking graphic novels and trade paperback collections of comic books, I have taken advantage of this generosity whenever I can, even if they were originally shelved next to teenage books. So far, I have borrowed nearly 400 library copies of assorted comic books, and I don’t intend to stop any time soon.

I am very lucky in that I live in London – the number of libraries is much larger and much denser, so I get access to a huge range to different collections. The libraries in outer London tend predominantly towards the superhero, but when I work in inner London, I can borrow from libraries there because you don’t have to live in the area to become a member. This has been a particular boon working in and near the city of London: the library in the Barbican has been fantastic for the rarer non-superhero titles (and I will be forever grateful for the copies of the first two omnibus editions of Lone Wolf and Cub – that book is as incredible as its reputation warrants) and the literary/arty end of the graphic novel spectrum. It is only beaten out to top of my list by Islington libraries – I am not a resident of Islington but I can still join its libraries – because it has free reservations. I can search for a book from any of the collections around the borough and reserve it to be delivered to the library closest to the office and don’t have to pay a penny (for a long time, Wandsworth libraries had free reservations – see the earlier entries in From A Library – but then they started charging a pound for the privilege; the Barbican charges the same for reservations, unfortunately, because I’m a cheapskate). So I can queue up runs of books to read at my leisure – I’ve currently got the first four volumes of Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery on the go – and feel incredibly smug about it.

I also feel that I’m helping out the authors, even if it’s only a little. Under the government-funded Public Lending Right scheme, authors are paid 6.05p every time their physical books are borrowed from UK’s public libraries, up to a maximum of £6,600. (NB: not ebooks and audiobooks, something that authors not happy about, obviously, but that’s another story.) I know it seems like a weak rationalisation but it means that my conscience is clear: I’m reading vast quantities of the medium I love and I’m not stealing from anybody to do it.

Through the wonder of libraries, I’ve been able to read a wide variety of comic books:

  • I’ve sampled the more literary graphic novels (Asterios Polyp, Blankets: An Illustrated Novel, Chico & Rita, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, The Fifth Beatle)
  • I’ve tried out the off-beat and interesting (King City, Multiple Warheads, The Incal, The Wizard’s Tale, Blacksad, Daytripper, Pride of Baghdad, The New Deadwardians, Grandville, I Kill Giants, The Massive, The Perhapanauts, Saucer Country, Grant Morrison’s 18 Days)
  • I’ve read the big crossovers of the mainstream companies so I can keep vaguely up to date with them (Flashpoint, Age of Ultron, Avengers Vs X-Men, Blackest Night, Infinite Crisis)
  • I’ve read a plethora of creator-owned Image books as the company goes through an explosion of new material (Pigs, Peter Panzerfaust, Prophet by Brandon Graham, Thief of Thieves, Pretty Deadly, East of West, Manhattan Projects, The Red Wing)
  • I’ve read vast collections in the form of the omnibus (Lone Wolf and Cub, Fallen Angel, Finder, Rex Mundi)
  • I’ve been able to read the entirety of a series (all eight volumes of Bill Willingham’s House of Mystery, all four volumes of iZombie, all seven volumes of Northlander, the three volumes collecting Action Philosophers)
  • I was able to check out DC books that passed me by since I stopped reading any Nu-52 books (the first volume of Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo’s Batman was excellent, but I didn’t enjoy the conclusion of the Court of Owls and I thought the Joker story was rather dull and talky; I really enjoyed Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang’s take on Wonder Woman in the three volumes I’ve read so far; I loved the art by Andrea Sorrentino in the two volumes of I, Vampire and the art by Moritat in the two volumes of All-Star Western; and I borrowed the first two volumes of Justice League just so I could see Jim Lee’s art)
  • I picked up some Marvel books that I thought I might like (I enjoyed the three trades of Kelly Sue Deconnick’s Captain Marvel; I enjoyed five trades of Superior Spider-Man; I really enjoyed the start to the Miles Morales Ultimate Spider-Man, but have stopped reading that after the fourth book when Bendis did the plot twist that made me give up; I thought that Avengers Academy was a lot of fun, a kind of Avengers New Mutants; and I was surprised by how much I got into the first two trades of Avengers Arena)
  • I read hardcover OGNs that I wouldn’t buy because I don’t buy hardcovers (Avengers: Endless Wartime, Hulk Season One, Batman: Earth One, Superman: Earth One, Hunter by Darwyn Cooke)

The only downside to this is that I am not part of the current comic book conversation – I’ve cut down drastically on what I buy in monthly titles since the price of comic books jumped past $2.99 – but I don’t mind because I get to enjoy the primary point of comic books: reading them. Talking about them is secondary, so I can live with that. So thank you, libraries everywhere, and I hope that everyone continues to enjoy your services for a long time to come.

Book Review: Ghosts Of Manhattan

Monday, 20 October 2014

Written by George Mann

New York. November 1927. A man in a fedora, trench coat and red goggles stops a bank heist, in a violent fashion: throwing a man through a holographic statue of Pegasus, firing steel flechettes from a weapon concealed in his arm, burning the face off a robber with the rockets in his shoes, decapitating another robber with a metal disk after the robber killed a hostage. He is the Ghost, fighting a one-man war against crime.

Meanwhile, Gabriel Cross is a wealthy thirty-something, the toast of New York society, known for his fabulous parties. The only person he cares about is Celeste Parker, a jazz singer at a club in downtown Manhattan. He fought during the First World War, saw horrors he doesn’t want to remember and tries to forget it in parties. Felix Donovan is a police inspector, called out to Grammercy Park Hotel where a senator has been killed, found in a compromising position (illegal booze, a dead prostitute beside him) and with two Roman coins (originals, genuine 2000-year-old coins but in perfect condition, as if pressed yesterday) on his eyelids. It is the third murder in as many weeks, all with the same coin-on-the-eyes calling card of the Roman, a gangster who came from nowhere to become one of the most powerful mob bosses in the city, who has never been seen by anyone.

When the Ghost (who was coincidentally also a soldier/engineer/pilot in the war, haunted by what he saw in France) tries to stop two goons beating up a shopkeeper, two giant creatures come out of the goons’ truck: golems, out to kill the Ghost and virtually unstoppable; he barely escapes with his life. Donovan is approached by Gideon Reece, a lackey of the Roman, trying to bribe Donovan into becoming one of the Roman’s accessories, but Donovan isn’t interested. The Roman is a wiry, muscular man in his mid-50s, with a room full of old paintings, antique books, statues and other assorted riches; in his basement, he has Dr Spectorius creating his moss golems (the Roman is looking for a girl hidden by the Sisterhood; Reece has a lead about a singer in a jazz club …)

Gabriel visits the Sensation Club, a jazz club for the rich, where Celeste is singing, when Reece turns up and the shooting starts; Gabriel escapes with Celeste through a trapdoor. It turns out that Celeste is part of the Sisterhood, a group dedicated to stopping the Roman performing a ceremony that will summon a creature to this world. The Ghost investigates the Roman, arriving too late at the house of a doctor who has been murdered and staged like all the killings by the Roman’s gang, but it leads to the Ghost and Donovan working out that they’re on the same side, and that both are looking for Gideon Reece.

The Ghost visits his only friend is Arthur Wolfe, an Englishman in New York (no longer welcome in the US but tolerated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for his expertise on European history), to see him about the Roman’s coins he acquired from the corpse. In return, Arthur tells the Ghost about an Italian man who wanted to buy a mysterious artefact, a large ring with unidentifiable symbols on it, and who got angry when he couldn’t get it. The adventure continues with rescues, escapes, dogfights over Manhattan, a battle in a power station and final confrontations during a strange ceremony …

The prose has unusual instances of fruity language – ‘lipstick all over his prick’, ‘He’d fucked her that night’ – as if the author felt obliged to use it because it is expected of the genre, but it jibes with the rest of the book, which is a sedate, clear unfussy prose with normal, clean language. There isn’t any real sense of time or place in the dialogue, and the third-person narrative means that there isn’t any flavour in the narration. The book has hints of the otherness of the world created for story (hologram tubes for phones, pneumatic trains, steam-powered cars, the moss golems) and the alternate history (Queen Alberta I is on the British throne – when the war started, there was an uneasy alliance with America; but when the British won the war with their great weapon, the Behemoth Land Crawler, the alliance faltered. Alberta is not keen on her mother’s former allies, calling them ‘upstart colonists’ and believes that the British Empire needs to reclaim its former glories, leading to a cold war) but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it or why the world it is the way it is. It’s almost as if it’s just there to distinguish this book from the pulps that are the genetic antecedents (The Shadow, The Spider, Batman), but throwing it into the mix and then leaving it there without extrapolation or exploration. The story has some clich├ęs (the Ghost staying too long at a murder scene so that the police shoot at him), the reason for the Roman’s plans feels out of place instead of a surprising reveal, and I disliked the fate of one of the characters. All this means that I can’t recommend Ghosts of Manhattan, despite my enthusiasm for the DNA of the contents.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Visiting Comics Unmasked: Art And Anarchy In The UK

Thursday, 25 September 2014

It took me a long time to visit the exhibition at the British Library, mainly because it was happening while I was in the process of moving house (and it was a complex and fraught move, but you don’t need to hear about that …), so I felt there was no rush to share my thoughts. Another reason was the fact that I wasn’t blown away by the exhibit, and I didn’t want to be vocally negative about a very public comic-book-related event – it seems a little churlish of me when I love comic books so much and everyone else seemed to love it.

The best thing about Comics Unmasked is that it existed – there was an exhibition devoted to comic books in the British Library; how great is that? It wasn’t a pseudo-exhibit with a tenuous link: it was all about comic books in all their forms, and that is nothing to be sneezed at. I went near the end of the run when they had to extend the opening hours to the early evening to accommodate everybody who wanted to visit – I arrived at 6pm and stayed for the full 2 hours until throwing-out time, and the place was packed. There are lots of things to do in London in the summer, so it’s an impressive achievement.

As you entered the exhibition, on the walls there were quotes from famous people about comic books (Julie Burchill, Salvador Dali, Alan Moore), providing the first indicator that this is taking the topic seriously. The first section was about Mischief And Mayhem – going back to Mr Punch from the late 1800s and coming to the present with Biffa Bacon from Viz – followed by Not Suitable For Children, which had a selection of comic books (which are, in the public eye, aimed only at kids) that made the adults who didn’t get it think that somebody should think about the children, such as Action! and Tales From The Crypt. There was a section on religious comic books – there was an old Bible which had images to help tell the story, and the modern examples included Troubled Souls and Preacher.

To See Ourselves displayed comics books that reflected humanity in all its forms, looking at the class system, such as an old Victorian Christmas comic strip, Lord Snooty and A Small Killing; there were books that focussed on women and minorities (including Crisis, a Muslim manga and Al Davidson’s Spiral Cage). There was a large section devoted to Politics (there were lots of mannequins around the exhibition, dressed in hoodies and jeans but with V For Vendetta masks on their faces – it was rather creepy, truth be told), all about satire, finance, poverty, suffragettes, homophobia, racism, nuclear war, so the books included When The Wind Blows, some pages of Alan Moore’s script for V For Vendetta, and even the Judge Dredd story Burger War). It was a very good display of the way that comic books can tackle any subject and will do it readily.

There was closed-off section devoted to Sex: the infamous page about Rupert the Bear from Oz magazine and the obscenity trial, pages from Lost Girls, comic books about gay sex, SDBM, early erotica, explanations of AIDS. There weren’t quite as many books as in the politics section, but it made up for it in intensity. The section, Hero With A 1000 Faces, was filled with pages of lots of different characters from 2000AD (Dredd, Slaine, Zenith, Halo Jones, Zenith) and pages from the work of British creators on other characters (Dan Dare, Batman, Superman, Watchmen, The Authority, Kick-Ass, Marshall Law), i.e. the famous stuff that most of the public would know and the comic book geeks would want.

The final section, called Breakdowns, was devoted to magic (artwork from Promethea, pages of John Dee’s book in Enochian, stuff on Aleister Crowley) and altered perception (artwork from Batman: Arkham Asylum, Animal Man with Morrison in the book, Rogan Josh, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, The Sandman – an excuse to show Gaiman’s script for The Sandman #28 and rough mock-up of The Sandman #21 drawn by Gaiman). It seemed a strange way to finish the exhibition, but it did leave a lasting impression.

In addition to the exhibits, there were also tablets dotted around which had a variety of comic books on them (Zenith, Dotter Of My Father’s Eyes, Slaine, Judge Anderson), if you wanted to spend some more time investigating some of the exhibits. Personally, I didn’t want to sit around reading comics because of the fact that it was too chilly to stop moving – the exhibition was in the downstairs area, with no windows and strong air-conditioning. The lighting wasn’t particularly great – viewing the pages of artwork behind the glass cases, you had to view it at the right angle or the reflection would obscure your vision, making it hard to read the comics, and the shadows created by the light would fall on the explanatory text. I still enjoyed my two hours in the British Library and the fact that there was this huge display of comic book pages, but I wouldn’t have recommended it if I’d seen it earlier in the exhibition’s run.

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes Gods Of War

Monday, 15 September 2014

Written by James Lovegrove

Sherlock Holmes Gods Of War finds Doctor Watson writing this story in 1923 about events in September 1913: Holmes has been retired for 10 years in the village of East Dean in Sussex, looking after bees and writing monographs (Mycroft has died by this point, from a ruptured stomach ulcer). Holmes is just shy of his 60th birthday, Watson two years older, and Watson has come down by train to Eastbourne to holiday with Holmes, only for Holmes to drag him off on an urgent summons he received an hour before meeting Watson, to a jeweller’s on the main thoroughfare. It has been robbed of everything – all of the merchandise, stored in the cellar in quality safes. The junior employee is missing, thereby incriminating himself, but Holmes has other ideas; there is a circus just outside town …

After solving the case, Holmes and Watson return to Holmes’ cottage, which is a mile from the coast, and notice a biplane flying 30 feet overhead; it is the passion of a local bigwig, Craig Mallinson, who lives nearby, a self-made man with a fortune made in mining and importing, who usually flies around on the weekends. But this is not in his usual pattern, as if he is searching for something … Out walking along the coast, Holmes and Watson come across a group of locals on the beach, who are gathered around the corpse of a man. They make a cursory inspection before the arrival of Inspector George Trasker of the local constabulary (who thinks Holmes is a ‘prying busybody’), who gets them to leave but not before Holmes overhears that the body is Patrick Mallinson, son of the wealthy amateur aviator. The suspicion is suicide, but Holmes suspects foul play due to the specific type of mud on the body …

Holmes and Watson are visited in the cottage by Trasker and the bigwig, Craig Mallinson – Patrick had been missing but this was not uncommon, although the father was worried because Patrick had deferred going to Cambridge University that year to study Classics. The father believes it was due to a girl, although the girl had called it off last week. Mallinson wants employ Holmes to prove that Patrick committed suicide and that there was nothing untoward about his death.

Holmes and Watson travel to Eastbourne, to Tripp’s costumier, owned by Miss Elizabeth Vandenburg, the former paramour of Patrick; she came back to England a year ago after several years in Mysore in southern India, where she was a lady’s companion (all this deduced by Holmes) – she also learned a martial art and sword from a local man, son of a nawab, with whom she had a relationship that could have developed until her employer found out and sent her home. She met Patrick a few months previously – he had come to her shop for a Horus costume and a relationship developed. But then he didn’t turn up to some of their meetings and wouldn’t say why and would get angry when Elizabeth asked questions. The father visited her to request that she stop it but she didn’t; only when she’d had enough of the secrecy did she lay down an ultimatum – she still loved Patrick but she needed him to be honest (for example, his lie about a faded hieroglyph mark on his body). Holmes suspects a link to religious sect, like Aleister Crowley, but Trasker doesn’t know of anything in the area.

The next stop for Holmes and Watson is a midnight trip to Settleholm Manor, Mallinson’s estate, specifically the barn with plane (Holmes thinks Patrick might have been thrown out of the plane); they get caught by Jenks the gamekeeper, who takes them to the manor; where Holmes has to apologise to Mallinson, who is being visited by his friend, the eminent steel millionaire Sir Josiah Partlin-Grey, who has come to give comfort to Mallinson. The reason for the midnight visit was to inspect the plane – Holmes thinks Patrick might have been thrown out of the plane while being flown over the sea. Plenty more happens: Watson is tipped into the sea from the pier at Eastbourne, suggesting the investigation is having an effect; Holmes goes on one of his disappearance expeditions; Miss Vandenburg’s shop is burned down; Holmes does a disguise; there is a pursuit over rivers and up cliffs; secrets are revealed and the mystery solved.

The enjoyment of this story is the details that Lovegrove puts into it. There is a passing reference to Auguste Dupin and the Rue Morgue case – Holmes mentions meeting him in later life but didn’t like his personality. There is a passing reference to an untold Holmes adventure with John Merrick, aka The Elephant Man. There are historical mentions for Henry Ford and HG Wells, and Watson reads The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu, thinking that Dennis Nayland Smith relied on his fists and luck too much, and his colleague Dr Petri was colourless. I also particularly liked the lovely language used: horripilation, ‘the capacity to subluxate joints voluntarily’ [when describing Marfan syndrome], gibbous, nostrum, absquatulation, gallimaufry, lacuna, amanuensis. It speaks of a different age when writing used this vocabulary without a second thought, and I appreciated it.

The story is enjoyable and you feel like you’re reading an undiscovered Sherlock Holmes adventure; the mystery and investigation is perhaps more satisfying than the resolution, but that is true of a lot of stories. Lovegrove has the right voice for the book and Sherlock Holmes Gods Of War fits comfortably in the library of non-Conan Doyle stories.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.