The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder
Every now and again a book comes along that you know you will treasure in your memory for years to come. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is one of those books. It has a hilarious inventiveness about it that manages to stay on the right side of absurd. Which is to say, it’s all wonderfully absurd.
I want to start with Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear and A E W Mason’s At the Villa Rose which are both delightful period detective novels featuring Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Hanaud of the Paris Sûreté. My reason for picking these rather clever mystery stories is that they demonstrate a narrative structure popular in Victorian and Edwardian times. Namely, that you may start a novel with a single point of view but, to allow the author to give the reader background information, it may be necessary to switch the point of view to a different character. So no matter how clever Sherlock, we need to travel to Vermissa Valley to learn of The Scowrers, and Hanaud must understand what happened to Celia Harland.
Mark Hodder has a different problem to solve. He wants this to be the story of Sir Richard Burton with Algernon Charles Swinburne as his Watson. But Spring Heeled Jack must, of necessity, keep jumping out at people at different times when Sir Richard cannot be around. We therefore have the point of view shift so that Burton can be told or overhear what happened. At first, this is filtered through Detective Inspector Trounce (the rather more competent Lestrade figure). But, after a while, we get interludes from others until, finally, we have Spring Heeled Jack more firmly in our sights. Hodder then switches point of view until we manoevre everyone into the right place together at the right time to produce the climactic battle. Overall, this does produce a slight clunkiness. The Victorian/Edwardian approach was rather more limited and easier to manage. This is not to say multiple points of view is a bad thing. Rather it works better if you rotate the point of view more obviously from the outset. This gives a more even feel to the texture of the narrative. With this one caveat out of the way, I now propose to wax rhapsodic.
It seems to me that Mark Hodder is the true inheritor of K W Jeter’s mantle as the “father” of steampunk, making Hodder the “son” of steampunk for now. If I remember rightly, Jeter spent some time living in England which may explain why an American should come to write subversive books about Britain. His Morlock Night and Infernal Devices will long remain classics alongside Blaylock’s more “home-grown” inventiveness. Those who followed on from Jeter have tended to play around the edges with one or two mechanical oddities to stand out in the background detail. Kage Baker is an example of this phenomenon with The Women of Nell Gwynne’s being satisfied with one or two anachronisms like antigravity. In this first novel, Mark Hodder has produced one of the most pleasingly well-developed steampunk worlds I can remember. This is not one or two casual engineering marvels. The whole society has been rebuilt from the bottom up with some of the most magnificently absurd inventions now taken for granted by the current occupants of the smog-infested London. Thank God we are no longer obliged to call this Victorian London for, early on, Hodder kills Victoria off in a small hail of bullets. This propels us into an alternate universe where scientific research throws out some mind-bendingly efficient, but deficient, solutions to problems. For example, what better way of communicating over distance than to breed parakeets which can instantly memorise the messages and fly directly to the nominated destinations. It’s a shame the original parakeets had been taught to swear by old ships’ captains for this leaves the messages interspersed with “Blistering barnacles” and similarly colourful invective.
Such is the depth of the creativity that we have virtually every mode of transport and communication subverted by new science. Velocipedes are powered by Formby-treated coal. For the record, a modern Formby Cycles does now sell Giant Electric Bikes, but Hodder was probably thinking of Frank Hornby, the Liverpool-based maker of electric trains. This is symptomatic of the attention to detail. At every possible turn, we are confronted by some novel device or creature, each with interesting features and names to conjure with.
In the midst of all this mayhem, we have a mystery to solve and, with tongue firmly in cheek, Hodder has everything including uplifted wolves, a mad orangutan and a man increasingly desperate to get back home to have tea with his wife. Sir Richard proves equal to the challenge and, with an increasingly competent Swinburne to back him up, he works through the merely bizarre to the completely outrageous until all is resolved by some good thrusts of his sword, some broken heads and a few unavoidable deaths. When the soot settles and a murky dawn breaks, arrests are made and our heroes ready themselves for the second outing, namely: From the Case Journals of Sir Richard Francis Burton: The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man or The Strange Affair Of The Cross-Channel Grasshopper. Frankly, I’m confused as to title. Nothing new there. So I have already ordered both. As you will guess from all that has gone before, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is outrageous and uproarious fun. If you have not already done so, you should buy a copy and read it immediately.
As a penultimate thought, the artwork by Jon Sullivan is magnificent. You should check out the gallery on his website. Some of his biomechanicals and other creatures are terrific.
And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.
Congratulations to Mark Hodder for winning the 2011 Philip K. Dick Award for the best original science fiction paperback published in the US during 2010.
For reviews of the second, third, fourth and fifth instalments, see:
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
The Return of the Discontinued Man.
There are also two standalone novels:
A Red Sun Also Rises
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper.