The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder
Back in March, I read The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack starring Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne, and found it one of the most enjoyable romps of the year so far. Coming to the second exciting instalment, I have to introduce a caveat. When someone tells you a joke, you laugh the first time you hear it. There’s a surprise element that triggers the laugh. When you hear multiple variations on the same theme, you can smile, but the laugh is forced. The element of surprise is gone. A classic example of the problem was reading the Xanth novels by Piers Anthony. They would appear at regular intervals and, having thought Spell for Chameleon was terrific, I routinely bought the next in the serial up to about ten (I think he may be writing the twenty-eighth). But there comes a point when you get tired of all the punning. A trilogy devoted to puns worked for me. I love wordplay. The danger for any author who sells a series based on a “comic” idea is that once the jokes get repetitive, the readers may lose interest.
I say this because I find the parrot jokes wearing thin. Yes, some of the new insults are amusing but, once you have enjoyed the moment, you just wish we could have the message and get on with the story. Yet, we are all trapped. Unless the Technologists or Eugenicists introduce a new instant messaging system with glitches, we are stuck with the bad-beaking birds. Obviously, Piers Anthony and that Pratchett fellow with some thirty-eight Discworld novels have made a good living out of long-running serials or series. Once you have a significant number of titles under your belt and a brand name, most readers are not completists and you don’t care which ten they read and over what period of time. There will be new readers coming along all the time to keep the money rolling in. But in the spirit of constructive comment, I flag the issue for Mark Hodder to ruminate upon. Perhaps he will stop at a trilogy.
So where are we with The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man? This is another marvelous story. It plays beautifully with the initial appearance of a mechanical man who does not move in Trafalgar Square (or bark for that matter), through a Bulldog Drummond approach to solving riddles and investigating underground passages (Burton also has a sidekick called Algy), to a supernatural interest in black diamonds which is Sax Rohmer meets Algernon Blackwood (not to mention the last Spielberg/Lucas outing with crystal skulls), and so on. In the early scenes, we may even have Cottingley Fairies (except they are not). The period hints and allusions come thick and fast, and add hugely to the enjoyment of the whole.
Better still is the way in which this story grows out of the first. If Spring Heeled Jack really has created an alternate universe, it’s completely reasonable to have a tension between the two. If nature abhors a vacuum, then it surely abhors a divergent timeline. The integration of the Tichborne Case is nicely handled with this Claimant also as fat as Arthur Orton (presumably due to all the meat he ate in Wagga Wagga). The solution of the Irish problem requires the early arrival of triffids and the intervention in the American Civil War is a good way of solving the refugee problem.
The core of the problem then develops a philosophical bent with an eminently serious exploration of how a trammelled mind might be influenced. It’s an interesting conflation of anarchy and simple revolution to break rules and unbalance the status quo. Except no-one can ever draw a mob together and then point it in the desired direction unless there’s a sufficient common denominator to unite the individuals in common cause. Perhaps the Greeks and Romans had it right — that no civilisation can ever really succeed unless there’s a lot of slaves — that’s the working class in more modern times. Whatever the era, people will always resent being at the bottom of the heap so, if anyone can suggest a way in which they might throw off the chains, they might all be motivated. Except, once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s almost impossible to put back in. What a mob learns is remembered once the group mentality has fractured. In such situations, the burden is on society to evolve and restructure itself so that new demands for individual freedom and upward mobility can be accommodated.
Casting a backward glance at my initial caveat, I’m fairly confident Mark Hodder is “cute” enough to deal with the problem. My confidence comes from the way this story is evolving. Since I prefer to avoid spoilers, I will now become somewhat Delphic. The original storyline involving time travel introduces an unforeseen variable into the past. It’s not merely that Jack’s arrival precipitates the premature death of Queen Victoria and so changes the past, but it also resonates in a way not even the wisest time traveller could have predicted. It’s one of these unintended consequences that ultimately leaves a city like London with major landmarks as smoking ruins, and supplies a particularly convincing explanation for the development of real supernatural powers. All of which leaves even more dead than last time, the fight with the rakes being somewhat hilarious and the ultimate confrontation suitably creepy with the right answer coming out as by clockwork.
Writing the second book is always a challenge because you are going to be judged by the first. Fortunately for Mark Hodder, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is equally as good if not, in some ways, better than the first. When you have time travel creating alternates, opening windows to the future, unleashing memories of the past, and enabling the astral plane to interact with the mundane, you have almost outdone yourself. Now all that’s left is to completely rewrite world history with new great wars to come as even the German invention of the Folks’ Wagon is recast to fit the new bill.
Overall, this is wonderfully entertaining and a must-read! The next two books in the series are The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon and The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi. There’s also a standalone called A Red Sun Also Rises.
As the penultimate thought, once again 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.