Friday, April 18, 2008

Victorian strangeness

I came on this book in the local Border's and, I admit, the cover caught my attention. After reading the inside cover flap, I knew that this was a book that I had to read.

In his first novel, Jonathan Barnes has created an all new turn of the century London. Blending some steam-punk, some Holmes, some horror, Barnes has something altogether new here and very exciting!

The plot involves Edward Moon, a once popular magician who has since fallen out of vogue. Together with his stage partner, the mysterious Somnabulist, Moon has filled the part of a Holmes to a London Inspector and helped solve strange, unusual crimes. Moon has come to the conclusion that not only has his show gone out of style but so has his methods of deduction when he is presented with a case involving weird and perplexing murders. As he tries to solve the crimes, he becomes involved in a larger conspiracy by a group with designs to change the very fabric of London herself! Along the way, Moon meets many strange and unusual characters such as Cribb who claims to be living backwards in time, Mr. Skimpole the albino co-head of the mysterious government organization known only as the Directorate and the two men simply called "The Prefects" who have a taste for carnage and murder.

From the first page, it is clear that the reader is in for a rollicking ride through London at the turn of the 20th century. Barnes captures the feeling of the old century giving away to the new as Moon himself feels himself fading into the past. The style of the novel can be puzzling as it is narrated by a character that we do not meet until 3/4 of the way through the book and, as a narrator, he does not always play fair. It is true that we do not get inside Moon's head but it is not necessary to do so. Moon is a pawn in this play and is well aware of it himself. Even though the ending is more fantastic than the reader has been led to expect, it fits into the context of the overall plot and makes for a satisfying close.

When I first saw this book, I assumed that it was the first in a series with Moon but I find that it was a false assumption. Moon's story does not need to go further beyond this story and, in truth, this book would be cheapened if it did.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about this book is simply this, "I wish I had written it."

On a scale of 1-10, THE SOMNABULIST rates a solid 9! It rarely gets much better than this.

"I hear dead people..."

DEXTER IN THE DARK is the third book in the wildly popular 'Dexter' series by Jeff Lindsay.

Like many things, I came to this series late and primarily due to the Showtime TV show. The concept of a serial killer who only preys on bad people intrigued me and I was happy to see that the show delivered on that promise. I quickly read the second volume and just recently finished reading this one.

First off, there are some differences between the book and the show as there should be. I won't go into the plot differences (so as not to 'spoil' the books for anyone who hasn't read them yet) but the stylistic difference is quite major. Like the show, the books are written from Dexter's viewpoint as he goes about his life, killing bad guys and basically trying not to get caught. The narrative in the first two is basic first person and we see the world and the stories through Dexter's eyes. This changes in the third book.

A new narrator is brought in for sections of the book as Dexter becomes hunted by something that could be more than just another serial killer. While building tension, this becomes quite bothersome as Dexter is the star of the book and I disliked any time the attention was not on him. In addition, we are given a bit more information as to the nature of Dexter's "Dark Passenger" who we are told is the part of Dexter that truly commits the murders. I disliked the fact that the Dark Passenger is not featured much in this third book and that the explanation for it tends to absolve Dexter of his part in the killings. To me, this was a mistake and serves to make Dexter more like other serial killers and less unique. In a sense, it excuses Dexter of responsability for his actions. As the plot is intricately tied into this concept, I found it to be less compelling than the other novels. Even though the killer(s) are supposed to be far more primal, I felt them to be far less interesting than the Ice Truck Killer and the insane Doctor from the last two books.

Lindsay's writing is light and breezy. Maybe too much so as the book goes by very quickly (except for the sections that are not narrated by Dexter; those are tedious and plodding) and the dialogue is fast paced and cinematic. I almost wonder if Lindsay wrote this book with the third TV season of Dexter in mind.

In terms of the series, this has been my least favorite Dexter book so far but I am still interested enough that I would read a 4th one should Lindsay write it. But, if that one also disappointed, I would seriously consider not bothering with any more in the series.

On a scale of 1-10 (one being lowest, ten being highest), DEXTER IN THE DARK rates a 6.5 It wasn't great but it wasn't the worst thing I've read.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A new game is afoot!


For purely selfish reasons, I am always interested when someone comes out with a new mystery novel set in London around 1888. Basically, I'm curious as to what worked for them and what didn't and, of course, if they do it better than I am!

This is the first in a series of books by Will Thomas starring his 'enquiry agent' Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn. Much of this first book is taken up by the introduction of both Llewelyn and Barker as well as their setting and Barker's many eccentricities. Llewelyn, poor and on the verge of throwing himself into the Thames, answers an ad for an assistant and, after several trials of mind and body, is hired to replace a previous assistant now, unfortunately, deceased.

As expected, a case quickly comes Barker's way when a young Jewish man is found crucified in an street in London's East End. Barker is hired by the Chief Rabbi and sets out to find if the murdered man had died for personal reasons or if he was the first victim of a new Pogrom against the Jews. Along the way, much danger happens and Lewelyn wonders if he was smart in accepting his new job.

With the first book of a series, one expects the writer to take some time to set up the characters and setting. The problem is that this part is actually more interesting than the mystery! I wanted to learn more about Barker's life and adventures than their current case. Thomas' writing is nice and crisp and moves along at a fast pace. Perhaps too quickly as many of the incidental characters tend to merge into each other and it sometimes becomes difficult to remember who is whom. The scenes involving the Jewish people are well-written and knowledgeable and Thomas manages to convey some of the pervading anti-semitism of 1880's East End London.

The characters of Barker and Llewelyn are well drawn and, as to be expected, stand out. The only failing of Barker is that he has a Sherlock Holmesian/super-human quality about him. It seems that there is nothing this man cannot do, a language or culture he is not intimately familiar with or any target he cannot shoot! Hopefully Barker becomes more human in later stories and loses some of his super-powers. Llewelyn is the most realistic of the lot and is a fine choice as narrator of the story.

If there's a failing of this book, it's that the ending came much faster than I expected it to. After so much of a build-up, I thought that the climax would last longer. It certainly was exciting, though, despite the fact that it causes us to lose one of the cast at the end (not Llewelyn!) that I had grown rather fond of.

Overall, this was a good tale and one that would make a good episode of the old PBS show, MYSTERY! I recommend it for fans of Sherlock Holmes or Victorian 'pulp fiction.

One a scale of one to ten (one being lowest, ten being highest), I give SOME DANGER INVOLVED a solid SEVEN and look forward to reading the other books in the series.