The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax

By Andrew Cartmel.

Her legs were so long they reached her bottom. She wanted a record and I was going to take her for a spin – on both sides.

The Vinyl Detective barely makes a living from finding ob­scure re­cords and selling them. When a beautiful woman ap­proaches him to find a record from the short-lived Hathor label, he trawls through every charity shop, car-boot sale, and record fair in London to find the LP in question.

However, he’s not the only one looking for the record, which is also being sought by the nameless Aryan Twins.

The Detective (who’s never named) finds a repro of the disc, and then finds an original copy, but it needs cleaning. For­tu­n­ate­ly, our man has a mate in Wales with a machine that’ll do the job. But, oh dear, the Aryan Twins pinch the record, which then gets melted in a fire.

The Detective returns home, gets paid a nominal fee of £1,000 and starts organising his record collection among which he finds a mint condition copy of the record he’s been seeking all along. He takes it to the collector in Japan and returns home a lot better off than when he started.

So ended Side A.

Well, the Detective may have lost one hot girlfriend, but he’s almost immediately served up with another who delivers her­self to his door. She’s Ree, the granddaughter of Rita Mae Pol­li­ni, who sang on the one vocal track on the record which the Detective had been seeking in the first half of the book.

This time he’s off to California to track down another set of original copies of the Hathor records because together they spell out a mes­sage which Ree’s gran left behind. However, the Aryan Twins are back on the scene.

The Detective and Ree amass the Hathor collection again, which re­veals that Ree is the inheritor of a record-industry fortune.

I liked the humour and the clever way in which Burns Ho­bartt, Easy Geary and Professor Jellaway were connected. I didn’t think much of the clues on the records because anyone with half a brain could’ve worked out most of the answer without having to acquire all the records. Like many other readers, I thought that two hot babes falling for the detective was a bit 70s TV (like that PI series Hazel). In fact, that sums the story up. This is written-for-telly stuff, which means that little details such as various corpses and subsequent police investigations are quietly forgotten. The way the story is split into two parts with the almost obligatory trip to the US also has a very TV feel to it.

The vinyl nerdery may characterise the story, but my eyes were rolling at the start during the contest between the De­tec­tive and his neighbour, Arthur Himmler (or something like that), as to who could be the bigger vinyl nerd. “Gentle­men, you’re being a pair of pre­ten­tious gits.”

I may buy other books in the series in due course, but I think this will do for the moment.

The Wolf in the Attic

By Paul Kearney.

Anna Francis and her father, refugees from the fall of Smyrna, live in Oxford in fairly dire circumstances. Anna’s dad is al­ways having meet­ings with other Greeks or travelling to Lon­don, while his daugh­ter is being taught to be English or roam­ing around the streets of Oxford or further afield. On one of her rambles, she bumps into a certain Jack Lewis and his mate, Ronald Tolkien. She also encounters a band of gyp­sies in the woods and is led back home by a lithe boy called Luca.

Anna’s explorations take her to the attic where there is a loose win­d­ow. When a massive storm rattles it, she goes up to the attic to check on it, but instead finds a shapeshifter – Luca –, who has taken refuge from some people called the Roadmen, who are the enemies of the gyp­sies.

Soon after, Anna’s father is mur­dered. It seems that he had some dodgy dealings in London and had been defrauding the other mem­bers of the Greek community in Oxford. Anna is destined for the workhouse, but having none of it and strikes out in search of the gypsies. Eventually, Luca finds her and takes her to the safety of the camp where, she learns, she’s a witch as her mother was before her.

That safety is short lived because Anna hears the gypsies discussing their plans for her, which seem to involve Luca, who is the last of his kind. When she gets up to have a pee, she finds the clothes left behind by Luca’s dad, Job, who is also a shapeshifter. In them she finds the pocketknife that she lost and her dad’s watch, which was stolen when he was murdered. The gypsies were behind it all along.

Anna escapes from the camp, but is pursued by Job and Luca in their wolf forms. Job catches her, but she shoves some mistletoe down his throat, killing him. When Luca catches up with her, the two are re­con­ciled, and Gabriel, the leader of the Roadmen, arrives. Luca switches allegiance and Anna finds safety with their saviour.

About half of The Wolf in the Attic is the story of Anna’s everyday life in Oxford, which has no obvious aim, perhaps apart from the truth about her father’s activities being revealed. Lewis and Tolkien merely appear in a cameo role, but their entrance hinted vaguely at the possibility that they would become involved in Anna’s story and that would affect their own writing. In the end, they were nothing but a couple of chance characters who happened to walk into someone else’s story.

The shift to a fairytale-style story in the second half of the book is somewhat jarring in comparison with the first half. Like any good fairytale, Anna is a special girl, destined for special things. But like the first part, this part seemed to have no particular direction till near the end when everything was wrapped up – to a point.

It was also at the end that the religious element of the book came to the fore. The gypsies often talked about the coming of the Christ-man, but the mask comes off. As Anna flees from the gypsies, she’s tempted by the Devil, but rejects him, and Luca accepts salvation from Gabriel (although as an aside, with Gabriel there are strong overtones of Herne the Hunter) in a good Christian ending.

The problem with The Wolf in the Attic is the lack of cohesion throughout the text. This might’ve been a better story if the focus had solely been about Anna and her father trying to survive in Oxford and some revelation about her father’s busi­ness activities; or it might’ve been better if it’d focused on the fairytale, with supernatural el­e­ments being present from the outset in a more Philip Pullman-like setting.

 

The Hidden People

By Alison Littlewood.

Albert Mirralls meets his cousin, Elizabeth Thurlston, at the Great Ex­hi­b­i­tion. She’s pretty and has a nice singing voice, but a bit pro­vin­cial (and besides, she’s his cousin; no one wants mentally retarded chil­d­ren with a Habsburg lip).

Ten years and a marriage later, news arrives that Elizabeth has been murdered by her husband, burnt alive to expel a fairy from her. Albert goes to the village of Halfoak to sort things out, but gets caught up in the local superstitions.

His wife, Helena, joins him, although he would’ve preferred it if she’d stayed away, and the question quickly arose in my mind: “How are these two married?” She’s slightly less warm than absolute zero, and I can see her dressed as a leather-clad dominatrix, spanking Albert with a riding crop, and giving him such a good rogering that he needs to spend a month in a sanatorium recovering.

Albert eventually finds that his cousin was murdered to hide other dark doings in the village.

The Hidden People is meant to be a gothic novel in the style of Ann Radcliffe so that no matter what happens, there’s always an ex­pla­n­a­tion. The problem is that Littlewood quickly goes from sus­pense to progress-inhibiting dullness, and there are pages that can be skipped as the reader searches for some­thing to actually advance the plot.

The other problem here is the character of Albert Mirralls. He’s oddly obsessed with Elizabeth even though he only met her once, and yet ten years later, he’s still improbably in­fa­t­u­a­ted with her (even snick­ing off a lock of her hair as a me­men­to). He’s also, well, girlie, more like Emily St Aubert from The Mysteries of Udolfo than Theodore from The Castle of Otranto. If Littlewood had, say, cast Alberta and Helena as a painfully prickly lesbian couple in which the former is the femme, this might’ve worked if the latter was constantly rescuing her from imagined terrors.

I couldn’t finish this, and much of what I did read got skipped. Albert is annoying, Albert’s dad is annoying (and he’s only a minor cha­r­ac­ter), and Helena is annoying. The last is also a cliché – the snooty wife whom the hero marries, but it was a Big Mistake™.

I didn’t have high hopes for The Hidden People, but as I’d been browsing my way through Amazon, and not really finding anything of interest, I thought this might fit the bill. It didn’t. As in other cases, it’s not badly written, but the main cha­r­ac­ter is written for a different gender, and this, in com­bi­na­tion with Littlewood’s attempt at being suspenseful, just doesn’t work.

 

Things in Jars

By Jess Kidd.

Colin Clout was lying in the shade cast by the boughs of his favourite oak, half awake with half an eye on his half asleep flock, which had sought its own shelter from the summer sun, and half asleep with his mind on the book which he had just finished reading. That lay to one side along with his reed pipe, casually discarded, because even the Muses had wanted some umbrous respite from the heat. Indeed, above Colin, draped along a branch, was Euterpe, who had been going to provoke him into playing some new ditty, but was now napping with the rest of the world. Colin, though, was hoping that his friend and companion, Hobbinol, might come by so that they might dis­course about Things in Jars.

As it was, St Katherine had been wheeling around (as was her wont), and putting forth her dharma powers, she compelled jolly Hobbinol’s footsteps to the tree where Colin was reclining, and he, seeing his friend appear, sat up and greeted him as countrymen do: “Where the bloody hell have you been?” Swiving, Hobbinol replied. A button came off my shirt and I had to swive it back on. Colin sighed, his eyes almost rolling out of their sockets, and said, “Here sit beside me, Hob, be­cause I have a tale to review and would fain have your views on’t.” And what do you think of my swiving? Hobbinol pulled the button forwards for Colin to view, who said, “Sew what?” and they laughed for the wit of it.

“The tale begins with a kidnapping,” explained Colin. Some rich cully, no doubt. “Not at all, lad. This was a most strange child (hight Christabel) with venomous fangs and a bright future in the circus.” A leper? “In no way, but something that might’ve escaped from Ovid. Anyway, Dr Harbin goes to see Bridie Devine, employing her to find the child for its father, Edward Berwick.” She’s a member of the constabulary? “A private investigator – like Sherlock Homes, but real. Bridie goes to a churchyard, where she acquires the ghost of a mur­dered boxer called Ruby Doyle, who knows her, and claims she knows him, but she has no memory of the man.” How anime. “Quite.”

“Bridie goes to visit Sir Edward, who isn’t exactly forthcoming, and far from allowing her to see the child’s room, tells her not to enter the west wing of the house.” I see an obvious red rag and bull. “Your suspicions are correct because Bridie soon as­cer­tains where the keys are to be found and finds a room of a marine aspect which contains a monstrous thing in a jar – half child, half fish, which she removes because that’s what her­o­ines do these days. In fact, she knows this particular curio, having seen it many years previously.” A mermaid? “Some­thing of the sort.”

“Now much of the book is about the characters and their pasts, how Bridie was once a street urchin whose amateur medical skills brought her to the attention of the phil­an­thro­pic Dr Eames, who took her on as an apprentice till his evil son, Gideon, was exposed for the malevolent creature that he was, and sent to Australia.” No better place for such villains, I think. “There he was supposed to have drowned, but survived and has returned to London.” Do I guess the obvious wrongly, that Bridie will have to deal with Gideon? “Listen further, Hob, or you’ll spoil the rest.”

“Christabel was destined for sale in Paris, and Dr Harbin’s head was supposed to remain on his shoulders, but the two went their separate ways.” The doctor was also a villain? What is the profession coming to? I shall to their ilk no more, pre­fer­ring ancient quackery to remedy my ills. “Instead – if you’ll attend to Kidd’s tale –, the fish child is destined for Lester Lufkin’s circus, but as he is no naturalist, he mistakes her meta­mor­ph­o­sis for death, and passes her on to Gideon Eames.” Oh, fish fingers! “Indeed, Hob, indeed.”

“However, worry not because Bridie pursues the kidnappers along with the faithful Cora.” No doubt a sweet, blue-eyed country maid, whose blond hair cascades o’er her shoulders and tickles her bosoms which her smock can barely contain. “Nay, lad, but she’s a seven-foot-tall bearded lady of sapphic in­cli­n­a­tions, whom Bridie rescued from a circus, and is now her housemaid and sidekick.” How very Guardian!

“Bridie confronts Gideon Eames while Cora rescues Christabel and returns her to her natural element from which she expels Bridie to claim the wicked Dr Eames as payment.” So ends the tale? “Not quite. Ruby Doyle is the ghost of an old friend by another name, and though she lusted after her incorporeal pal, he directs her to the still living Valentine Rose – sh! Hob, no comments; I’ll explain. He’s another old friend from her days on the streets in London, but is now a police inspector with ever a fresh flower in his buttonhole.”

“The story is cleverly interwoven with tales from Bridie’s past which interlink the characters as well – even Mrs Bibby.” Mrs Bibby? “A cruel and amoral woman as e’er detached a doctor’s head.”

A most excellent tale, Colin, no doubt worthy of re­com­men­da­tion. “By and large, Hobbinol, you couldn’t be less inaccurate, although the imagined romance between Bridie and Ruby was schoolgirl stuff, and her confrontation of Gideon Eames with predictable, and his seizure by Sibéal no less a certainty.” Sibéal? “So Christabel truly hight. And the use of pseudonyms to hide the true names of Ruby Doyle and Mrs Bibby, though he had no reason to, and she and Bridie never met till near the end and needed no introduction.”

I’ll certainly read this story since, Colin, your words encourage me to do so, but (and here Hobbinol leapt to his feet) Clorinda would have me lift her skirt and swive mightily with my needle, and I fear she may be fingering her hem already. And in a trice, Hob, with a cheery farewell, was off down the hill, leaving Colin to pass the rest of an idle after­noon.

 

The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats

By Mark Hodder.

Last time on Burton and Swinburne …

“Why ever did we go forward in time?” wondered flame-haired poet and binge drinker, Algernon Swinburne.

“Because it was there,” replied Sir Richard Francis Burton, whose first mention always required his full name.

“So we weren’t trying to fix this unholy mess of multiple timelines that resulted from Edward Oxford killing his an­ces­tor and you whack­ing Queen Victoria. I mean, talk about the gunman on the grassy knoll.”

“Perhaps.” Burton sounded uncertain. “Anyway, tempus fugit and we have a our latest and last ad­ven­ture (apart from spin-off novellas) waiting for us.”

“Any chance that’ll bring everything to a neat, tidy end.”

Burton’s shoulders slumped.

Burton starts by dying properly in Trieste of old age. But you can’t keep a good Victorian down, and ten minutes later he’s been re­sur­rec­t­ed and is down the Slug and Lettuce, where he meets Swin­burne and Trounce, who have also been restored to life. They’ve never met, but have an immediate affinity for each other.

Sadhvi Raghavendra comes and fetches them. The Orpheus has just returned from the future and the Beetle wants a chat with them.

Then Burton wants a chat with his brother, Edward, who is instantly suspicious of him, but there’s no time to delve further because the Orpheus is under attack and Edward Bur­ton’s robot servants get strop­pi­ly homicidal. The ship and its AI are stolen with Ladbrokes closing the bets on Babbage being behind it.

When Burton goes to have a chat with Disraeli, the man starts ranting about the perfidious middle classes and how the nobs will guide the proles. Burton is stripped of his role as king’s agent and the job is transferred to his old archenemy, Chris­to­pher Rigby. The PM’s old mates are also dis­ap­pear­ing.

Gladstone asks Burton to investigate the matter further, but his mission is quickly derailed when he sees members of the Cannibal Club being detained. He goes to their aid, but gets arrested himself and only reveals his true identity when Rigby appears, who then tor­tures and kills Burton’s friends to try and force him to reveal where Swinburne and Daniel Gooch are hiding.

Fortunately, the Orpheus comes to the rescue … or does it? No, Swinburne and Gooch are in the bag half an hour later.

Luckily for Burton, someone slipped him some lock picks and hap­pens – who knows how – to arrange a timely diversion, allowing him, Swinburne and Trounce to escape.

It’s time to kick some full metal arse. Trounce goes off to muster his colleagues from Scotland Yard while Burton and Swinburne go to have a chat with Babbage whose plan to use the AI from Orpheus went a little wrong. Burton rages against the machine, which short circuits itself and its robo-minions back to the Bronze Age.

But wait! There’s more! A rejuvenated Burton goes after Rigby, bent on retribution for his friends rather than justice.

“And then the timeline goes back to normal. No more steam­punk, no more transdimensional Bur­tons, no more Swin­burnes needing to be sprayed for aphids, no more point­less rambling passages about Bur­ton being confused by echoes of himself from other timelines.”

“Probably.”

“What d’you mean by ‘probably’?”

“The story goes a bit Guardian after that – but just for one chapter.”

“Oh, well, I guess that’s all right.”

“Probably.”

About the first 20% of The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats is eminently skimmable. The Burton who dies normally in Trieste is bewildered by his other selves from across the various fractured timelines before he’s resurrected. The first time round I was curious to know what was going on and what the endpoint was. This time I wanted Hodder to stop rambling and get on with it.

There were other parts of the book where I got bored and skimmed my way through, looking for something of sub­stance. Fortunately, there wasn’t too much of this.

But the timeline was never fixed per se. The original conceit was that Edward Oxford’s interference in the timeline because of the inter­fer­ence of the now forgotten lizard people had led to the rise of steam technology, but everything got so tangled that, I suppose, Hod­der decided that the restoration of the world to the history we know today was no longer feasible.

Just as Newbury and Hobbes seemed to be Dr Who in a different guise, Burton and Swinburne was just another version of the same. The confused Burton scenes were re­min­i­scent of most re­gen­er­at­ing Doctor episodes, which were en­tire­ly irritating. The incorporation of science fiction elements … Incorporation? As I’ve said, this might be a genre called Victorian sci-fi, but it needed to be mar­ket­ed as such.

Overall, if Hodder had been a bit more restrained, a little less lolly addict in a sweetshop, this series might’ve risen above being “good”. If the author had simply remained in the 19th century, assuming the tech to be nothing more than a con­se­quence of the genius of the age, he would’ve been onto something. There would’ve been no need to assume an alt history, black diamonds, and time-jump­ing lunatics leading to a storyline which is never concluded in a truly satisfactory fashion.

The Return of the Discontinued Man

By Mark Hodder.

Last time on Burton and Swinburne …

“I’ve got the figures for all the death and destruction. Most of the Caul­dron has been destroyed, and its residents. Perdurabo – that’s A­lei­ster Crowley –, and his undead minions went up with it, and Abdu El Yezdi, who was the original Sir Richard, has also taken his last ca­m­el ride into the desert.”

“If that’s the case,” said the Prime Minister, “the adventures of Burton and Swinburne must be over.”

“You’d think so, Prime Minister, but a new report has come in.”

“It can’t be worse than Brexit.”

“Er …”

“Oh,” sighed the Prime Minister.

The Return of the Discontinued Man starts with the re­place­ment Bur­ton skipping from time­line to time­line, which, he realises, is a con­se­quence of indulging in Saltzman’s Tincture. When he asks his che­m­ist, Mr Shudders, about it, the mystery deepens, and reacquiring Fidget from this time­line (who still likes nipping at Swinburne’s an­kles), Burton find that the Bee­t­le, the head of the chimney sweeps, is the source, the potion being harvested from the Swinburne plant. (And now that you know that, you can skip the waffly Chapter 4.)

At the same time, various Spring-Heeled Jacks start ap­pear­ing, ap­pa­r­ent­ly searching for Burton, but all being dottier than smallpox. They aren’t the actual Spring-Heeled Jack, but the suit, the ap­pear­ance of which seems to have been triggered by Brunel and co. ex­pe­ri­men­t­ing on the copies they have. Un­for­tu­n­ate­ly, this often seems fatal for Brunel, whose mechanical body ends up as a museum piece.

The boys decide to travel into the future to put a stop to Spring-Heeled Jack. They can’t replicated the technology of his suit on such a small scale, but they can at a more Victorian size, and outfit the Or­pheus with all the gear. At the same time, the descendants of the Can­ni­bal Club will render what assistance they can.

As the Orpheus jumps through time, there are various up­grades, but society is increasingly worse, with a divide be­tween the haves and have-nots, and with the surveillance state being almost all-en­com­pas­sing.

When they reach 2202, their plan is to kidnap Queen Victoria (ac­tual­ly a woman called Jessica Cornish). The leader of the resistance has been captured, and the gang head for the House of Lords, which is populated infantile loons over which Brunel presides. Brunel? No, it’s his mechanical body, but in the black diamonds is the insane Edward Oxford, who goes completely mad when Burton reveals the machine’s true i­den­ti­ty, and he finally kills the explorer.

“Surely that really is the end of the story,” said the PM.

“But wait, Prime Minister, there’s more!”

You see, because of Burton’s proximity to the black diamonds when Oxford kills him, his consciousness is transferred to them. Burton sur­vives, but has no flesh-and-blood body.

“Excellent. Villainy has been given its proverbial lumps and the da­m­age Oxford caused can be undone,” said the Prime Minister. “Oh, you’re not about to say, ‘But wait, there’s more’, are you? Oh dear.”

There are large chunks of this which are vacuous, progress-inhibiting waffle such as Chapter 4, and I skipped quite a few pages later in the book till I found something worth reading. Perhaps Hodder is paid by the word, or perhaps the contract with his publisher specified 450 pages, but he was struggling to squeeze enough content out of the plot.

There were also the obvious tropes such as the inevitability that the boys will get into some sort of contrived trouble for making the plot more exciting without – again – advancing it.

I was thinking abut Hodder’s kitchen-sink style of writing and won­der­ing whether this should be peddled as dystopian Vic­to­r­ian sci-fi. Even if Steampunk might be classified as a sub­genre of sci-fi, these novels go well beyond what might com­for­ta­bly fall under the Steam­punk umbrella.

There is some clever writing (e.g. the strange woman who ap­pears out of nowhere and gets run over, who later turns out to be a member of the House of Lords sent back in time by Ed­ward Oxford as he shows off his power), and I ought to point out that unlike many no­v­els, these are not humour-free romps, but what might’ve made a decent, tightly plotted tri­lo­g­y has outstayed its welcome.

I know there’s one more volume in the series, which, I as­sume, will tidy the entire mess up, with Oxford’s inter­fer­ence in the past being prevented to prevent Burton’s own ac­ci­d­en­tal hand in what hap­pened. Or something like that. However, I feel that a forensic eye on the series would reveal all manner of plot holes and paradoxes.

I think that after this, Hodder should go on a strict diet of one-off novellas and short stories.

 

The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi

By Mark Hodder.

Last time on Burton and Swinburne … “Oops! Bugger! I’ve just shot the queen.” And there goes the timeline again.

Burton is a bit discombobulated. He’s on his way back from Africa, but the world is somehow wrong. Oliphant is there, mur­de­r­ing the Stroyan (who has already been killed off pre­vi­ous­ly) to summon some fell spirit. Speke is … also dead already. Burton’s hearing a voice – his own, but not his own.

Burton is to be knighted for his discoveries in Africa, and he’s also inducted into the great secret of the age, that the go­v­ern­ment is being advised by someone called Abdu El Yezdi, who is behind all the technological advances which emerged out of nowhere. The spirit had been communicating with Burton’s brother, Edward, but after a massive solar storm, contact from him has ceased.

The explorer’s investigations make no headway, which co­in­cides with the mysterious disappearance of various pro­mi­n­ent scientists. Burke and Hare, who were Palmerston’s henchmen, snatch Charles Darwin, but Burton does acquire Bram Stoker as a valet.

Anyway, apart from all this business, Burton also has to attend a party with his future in-laws, the Arundells. However, not all is well with his fiancée, Isabel, who’s taken to wandering about at night because she’s fallen victim to a vampire called Perdurabo. “Oh,” said Burton sounding disappointed. “I thought you might be Dracula.” Dracula? Bah! The eastern European plumber of the vampire world, stealing hot babes off us hard-working English vampires. This is why I voted for Brexit, mate. And the vampire ranted on for another five minutes until the spirit of Nigel Farage could be exorcised.

In spite of an attempt to exorcise Perdurabo, the spirit jumps to another body, and Isabel, too far gone to be rescued, must also be finished off.

But getting back to the actual story, Swinburne works out the riddle which points them to Abdu El Yezdi, who’s secret base is Battersea Power Station, where he hangs out with Brunel and various other allies. It seems that Perdurabo’s plan is to blow up a conference at which the government will sign an alliance with the German Con­fed­er­a­tion, and, it seems, he’s going to hijack a battleship.

Burton realises it’s all a distraction, and he has to pursue Perdurabo down Bazalgette’s new sewer system in a diving suit, tethered by a chain. When the spirit teasingly places the bomb just beyond his opponent’s reach, Burton blows a whistle, seals the suit, and a torrent of sewage comes flooding down the pipe, washing away Perdurabo and his bomb, which detonates beneath the Cauldron, where he had been fo­m­en­ting rebellion.

This was another book in which Hodder wanted to have all his genres and eat them. In this case, instead of coming up with some original vampire story, he ripped off Dracula, which was when I started skipping pages. In fact, this entire section could have been deleted without losing anything because it’s sole purpose was for Perdurabo (actually, a minor character, Aleister Crowley, from an earlier book) to try and crush Burton’s spirit. The real story was Crowley’s attempted destruction of the Anglo-German alliance.

The opening of the story led to my usual question about how long it’d be before we knew what was going on. The Burton of this timeline was returning in triumph from Africa, but the advanced tech was still evident, and not everyone who should’ve been alive was (e.g. Speke); some people who should’ve been dead got a second go at it, including the luck­less Countess Sabina. In many ways, this was like a reboot, with Burton and Swinburne meeting each other for the first time (and then everyone gushed rather un­con­vin­cing­ly over Swinburne’s poems).

The end of the story was very televisual in that it was all contrived to polish the story off in about ten minutes flat. It was realised that Perdurabo would be using the sewer system. Burton acquired a diving suit from somewhere so that he could go wading after Crowley. The chain which was tethering him was just long enough to reach the site of the bomb, but not long enough for him to reach the bomb to de­fuse it. After Burton blows his whistle, the deluge of sewage sweeps Crowley and the bomb away to exactly where it could blow him and his undead minions to kingdom come.

If Hodder does have an overall end to the story in mind, The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi seems to be a step in no particular direction. Indeed, the original Burton dies of old age, having been living in this timeline since he tried to stop Edward Oxford from assassinating Queen Victoria, which makes the entire premiss null and void because the new Burton only learns about Oxford secondhand and, therefore, has no vested interest in the temporal turmoil which the lizard people pro­voked in the first place.

There are two more books in the series. I’ll persevere.

 

Hope for the Best

By Jodi Taylor.

Jodi Taylor’s latest tale of time-travelling derring-do flies by. At the end of the previous volume (probably An Ar­gu­men­ta­tion of His­to­r­ians), Max Maxwell decided that the only way to deal with the villainous Clive Ronan was to deal with him herself. Run, Clive! Run!

In Hope for the Best, Max’s plan is trying to stop Clive Ronan once and for all by joining the Time Police. But before she can got on with the job at hand, her son, Matthew, spots some­thing wrong with the time map at Time Police HQ that’s making a mess of the 16th century, and when the Time Police go to London, they find chaos, with a combined invasion of England by the Spanish, French and Scots. Somehow, Mary Tudor never ascended to the throne, having been poisoned, and Elizabeth was probably murdered, leaving Jane Grey as queen, and she turned out to be an absolute nightmare. They rescue a team from St Mary’s, ensure that Mary’s message gets to London, and just manage to escape as the timeline collapses.

When Max gets back to St Mary’s afterwards, the place is deserted. She’s confronted by the idiot Malcolm Halcombe (a minor villain from earlier books in the series), who forces her to go back to AD33, which is one of those points in time everyone’s banned from visiting. Max manages to hold out long enough for the Time Police to arrest Halcombe’s minions before she returns to St Mary’s to find out from Peterson where everyone else has got to. The conclusion is that Clive Ronan has got his fingers in a few important puddings.

A plan is hatched that involves the two fugitive time travellers, Aidan and Mikey, and a rather nasty London villain called Mr Wolfe. Max takes him a couple of dodos as proof of her ability to get something unique from the past (although he then shoots one to increase the value of the other). She then takes him and his minder, Mr Khalife, to ancient Kush, where the latter shoots a snake and causes a stampede of camels.

Max then takes the two gangsters to the Cretaceous Period where, she hopes, Ronan will be lurking, and is, along with treachery (Mr Khalife kills Mr Wolfe; Ronan kills Mr Khalife) and a hungry T-Rex. Things are looking bad for Max as Ronan tries to kill her in the middle of a torrential Cretaceous rainstorm, but the Time Police turn up and save the day.

It looks like Max has finally triumphed, but no. Ronan has been released because if he’s executed, he won’t be able to commit further crimes in the future which will, in turn, affect the timeline. Only once he’s done will the smartdust they’ve implanted in his head be ac­ti­vat­ed, killing him. Max is furious, as is Dr Bairstow, and she returns to St Mary’s also believing that she’s lost her son as well.

But while Max was larking about in the Cretaceous Period, Leon was evacuating not only Aidan and Mikey, but also Matthew as well. Ronan is still out there, but the Farrells are together at last.

The tale chugs swiftly along without getting too tedious or being too full of elements that contribute little to the story. However, the end is, I think, weak since the Time Police may as well have, in effect, said that Ronan can be left to live out the rest of his life because by the time he’s finished being a wicked little shit, the smartdust will be a shrug.

I’m wondering if this is the last episode in the St Mary’s series because at the end of the book, Taylor’s trumpeting a new series about the Time Police.

 

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon

By Mark Hodder.

Sir Richard Francis Burton is torn through time. In one brief part it’s clear that he’s gone back in time to try and stop Edward Oxford accidentally causing the premature death of Queen Victoria. In con­tem­po­rary time, he’s off to East Africa to search for the black dia­mond which is somewhere in the Mountains of the Moon. But he’s also been thrown forwards in time to the East Africa 1914 where the remnants of the British Empire try to stave off their inevitable defeat at the hands of the Germans. Either way, Burton needs to get to the Mountains of the Moon.

As it turns out, the whole thing has been part of an elaborate plan by the nāga to restore their race after the black diamond was shattered.

On returning to his own time, Burton realises that the only solution is to stop Oxford, whose interference caused the original timeline to be disrupted. He enlists Brunel’s aid, but when the explorer returns to 1840, he discovers that it was never the rogue time traveller who was responsible for the queen’s death.

Just as Burton doesn’t know what he’s doing in 1914 and only gradually recalls the past, the reader knows no more than he does. While this is an obvious technique to use, it left me wondering what my motivation was. The story becomes a long series of episodes as Burton evades the might of Prussia during WWI or pursues John Speke’s German-financed expedition in 1865. The reader knows that the story revolves around the black diamond in Africa, but it’s a detail which is often buried away under a heap of other things.

The storytelling is of a decent quality, but tends to drag. Yes, I know the reader will find out what Burton’s doing in 1914 as he himself finds out, but the question I find myself asking is how any of the this makes a concrete contribution to the story, and the answer is that it doesn’t. Ultimately, Burton has to get back to the cave and that’s it. The rest is some incidental adventure which could be skipped en­tire­ly.

The sci-fi and psi powers elements of the story still grate. London is still clogged, filthy and stinky. Trounce, Honesty and H.G. Wells (Bur­ton’s sidekick in 1914) all get mown down. Swinburne gets turned into a plant.

Overall, three out of five stuff.

 

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man

By Mark Hodder.

Last time on Burton and Swinburne, Edward Oxford’s interference in the timeline has altered the world of the 19th century. Now read on …

Brunel tries to steal some black diamonds so that Babbage can transfer his consciousness to one of his engines, but the plan back­fires because the gems are fakes. Before Burton and Swinburne can investigate the matter further, Palmerston orders them to investigate the Tichborne Claimant.

The boys go to Tichborne where the eponymous Sir Alfred is dragged through walls to his death by wraiths, and the Claimant, who re­sem­bles an enormous, carnivorous tub of lard, is hailed by all and sundry as the genuine article. The lower orders are particularly susceptible to his powers until they get drunk.

When the Tichborne Claimant goes to London, he provokes a riot which leads to a general rebellion. There’s a Rake connection as well, and when Burton tries to infiltrate a séance, he’s unmasked and his mind is nearly destroyed by Helena Blavatsky, who has seen into the future and wants to ensure that Russia remains strong.

Fortunately, with the help of some astral projection and his dervish psi powers, Burton recovers just in time to finish off the battle against the Claimant, who attacks his house. He confronts Blavatsky, over­coming her to reveal the true puppet master – Rasputin (ra! ra!)

With all the villains given their lumps, and Britain shakily safe again, the powers that be decide the Empire needs to have possession of the black diamonds for itself. Burton and Swinburne are off to Africa to recover the third of them.

London is still filthy, stinky and generally disgusting. Hodder is constantly flinging around gallons of blood and viscera, and casually kills off a few characters such as Babbage and Herbert Spencer.

The storyline is again neatly tied together with there being a connection between the black diamonds and the Tichborne Claimant (who’s using them to enhance his psi powers). On the other hand, there’s still waffle as Hodder chunters on about social theory which undermines the effective development of the narrative.

Although the conceit that Edward Oxford’s interference in history triggered an alternative timeline, and although Hodder quite cleverly incorporates elements of Victorian England into the story (e.g. séances), the lass plausible psi elements detract from the more plaus­ible steampunk ones. The same can be said of the highly advanced science of genetics which results in the creation of hybrid creatures, or technology that allows a human mind to be transferred to a ma­chine. Some Fullmetal Alchemist is all right, but Hodder, I feel, over­does it.

Overall, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is a ripping yarn, but some of the elements grate a little with the author apparently want­ing his genres and eating them.

As a final note, I observe that this seems rather like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but with real-life historical figures instead of fictional characters.

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.