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From A Library – Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron

Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula is a wonderful novel blending fiction and history, with characters appropriated from novels and films, into an alternative timeline (in which Dracula wasn’t killed but has become consort to Queen Victoria and brought vampires into English society) detective story about a Jack the Ripper killing vampire prostitutes. I enjoyed it, so I was glad that the book was republished recently, perhaps due to the recent popularity of vampire-related material, which has also led to the republishing of the other books in the series. Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron is the first sequel, set in 1918, thirty years after the first novel. After the events of Anno Dracula, Dracula has become the head of the Central Powers, and the First World War has occurred more or less as in history, but with vampires fighting alongside warm (non-vampire) soldiers, meaning that silver was the metal most donated from houses for bullets to kill vampires.

The focus of the story is the battles between fliers: on the German side, the ‘Red Baron’ Manfred von Richtofen and his squadron, Jagdgeschwader 1 (also known as the Flying Circus), and on the Allies side, the Cundall Condors; Edwin Winthrop is a warm man put in charge of the Condors and the task of discovering the secrets of JG1 at the Chateau du Malinbois (later named Schloss Adler, the castle in Where Eagles Dare), where scientists such as Doctor Caligari, Doctor Mabuse and Professor ten Brincken are performing experiments. Edgar Poe (he has ditched his stepfather’s name), a new-born vampire, has been assigned to ghostwrite the autobiography of von Richtofen (to be used as propaganda for the war); Kate Reed, a journalist (and new-born vampire from Anno Dracula), is also trying to find out more about the Chateau, as she continues her crusade to reveal truths about the war – she made a name for herself revealing the ineptness of the French General Mireau (who is the character from the Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war film, Paths of Glory); and Winthrop’s disastrous first flight leads him on a dangerous and obsessive quest.

The book is well written and well researched, with the feeling of authentic details grounding the fantasy in a reality that puts the reader in the war. The First World War was a horrific war of attrition, as millions died in trenches for no reason, so there is a rather sad element to the book that sometimes stopped me from enjoying some aspects. Also, Winthrop’s obsession is one of the main elements of the story, an unsympathetic aspect that I found distancing on occasion. Far more enjoyable are the interactions between Poe and Richtofen (I completely missed the great Peanuts joke the first time) and the flashes of humour that Newman laces throughout the book: for example, the Dracula double who is a Hungarian matinee idol from Lugos.

There is great fun in seeing real people used in this story with aspects of history: Herman Goring is present (a veteran air fighter pilot in the First World War, he was the real last commander of JG1); Winston Churchill is a new-born vampire who is part of Lord Ruthven’s government (Churchill was part of the government during the war, becoming Minister for Munitions in 1917); von Richthofen had a brother Lothar, also in the book, and Manfred had silver cups made to mark his victories in the air; Mata Hari is seen as a spy executed in France (although know she is a vampire, so she is killed with silver bullets). However, the real fun is in the use of fictional characters from books, film and television (and I didn’t recognise them all – you need the list at Wikipedia to help): some I recognise – such as the American pilot called Allard with a maniacal laugh, who is The Shadow; the English pilot Bigglesworth and his chums Algie and Ginger (I’ve never read the Biggles stories, but all British people grow up knowing about the character from all the various parodies); Doctor Moreau and Doctor Caligari – but most I didn’t and I was glad for the annotations because the book is full of characters from a variety of different material. For example, I was delighted to discover that Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, the German officer who befriends Poe at the Chateau, is the sympathetic German officer from the excellent The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp. Newman has a love for vampire stories and an encyclopaedic knowledge (Mark Kermode tells an anecdote in his book about how he uses Newman as an unofficial reference back-up when he needs to know something about a particular film), but he is also a very entertaining writer as well, so spot-the-reference is an amusing side game, instead of being the sole reason for the book’s existence.

The book also contains a novella: Vampire Romance, set in 1923, starring Geneviève Dieudonné (from Anno Dracula, an elder with a different line from Dracula) and Winthrop, which is a ‘1920s Old Dark House weekend mystery’, as Newman calls it, drawing on the works of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse – the plot involves a gathering of elder vampires at Mildew Manor, the home of ‘Aunt Agatha’ (from the Jeeves and Wooster stories), to select a new ‘King’ of vampires to replace Dracula. It also includes other characters from the previous books, such as Dravot and General Karnstein, as well as amusing world-building touches, such as the fact that Charlie Chaplin is the world’s most famous film star due to his character, the Little Vamp. It is a charming little murder mystery tale, told in chapters alternating from the point of view of Geneviève and Lydia, Agatha’s niece, who desperately wants to become a vampire at the hands (or teeth) or a dashing, brooding vampire, and has a very nice reveal (all good murder mysteries should have a good surprise in the reveal), which left me with a smile on my face. Two great stories in one book, which also contains some annotations from Newman and a treatment for a film that was inspired by the book, mean that this is highly recommended.

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