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Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper by Mark Hodder

August 24, 2014 7 comments

Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper

Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper by Mark Hodder (Sexton Blake Library, 6th Series, Issue 1, contains the original titular story plus a reprint of “The Wireless Telephone Clue” by G H Teed which was first published in 1922 (Obverse Books, 2014). This takes me back to my youth in the 1950s when I was just getting into my stride with the early adventure and what then passed for thriller fiction. As fast as I could find copies of their work, I was devouring Sax Rohmer, Sapper, Leslie Charteris, Dornford Yates, and a host of others — that was until I discovered the American magazines which signalled, I’m sad to say, a partial abandonment of British thriller and detective fiction in favour of science fiction, horror and fantasy. However, one of the more enduring favorites proved to be the Sexton Blake series. With more than four-thousand stories to work through, I was never going to run out of new material. Then I discovered the films and along came the television series in the 1960s. The television series lacked the wit of The Avengers, but it was a good second best. All of this nostalgia comes into play because Mark Hodder has produced the first new contribution to this series in fifty years. If you’re a fan, this is a red-letter day. If you’ve not previously encountered this heroic sleuth, this is what you need to know.

Sexton Blake, like Sherlock Holmes, occupies rooms on Baker Street and has a housekeeper who, like Mrs Malaprop before her, has a tendency to mangle her words. If nothing else, this introduces a note of levity into the proceedings. There are two key differences between Blake and Holmes. Blake is very much the man of action who takes on a series of individual criminals and gangs, often with an international dimension involving both conventional crime and espionage. Whereas Holmes is into the collection of clues and deductive reasoning, Blake tends to be more intuitive and, although he does depend on solving mysteries, they tend to be more superficial as befits the adventure/thriller genre.

Mark Hodder

Mark Hodder

So in this new story, we’re off and running with one of these 1920s-style slightly science fictional plots in which the dwarfish superbrain working for the Ministry of Defence has created the weapon to end all wars. This is a variety of disintegrating ray which, when held in a relatively stable position, is capable of reducing all in its path to their constituent atoms (or something along those lines). The British naturally have the theory that once this weapon is demonstrated to all interested parties, no-one will challenge the Empire’s hegemony and we will embark on a new era of peace in our time. Our hero has just returned from a jaunt on which he discovered the Ring of Solomon. With the Middle East in a state of ferment, it would be inconvenient if this news was released, so the British government decides to lock it away in a secret vault constructed under the Rock of Gibraltar. To get it there, the Government detaches the latest military airship from its duties as the carrier of this new secret weapon, and so puts all pieces in play. A collector supervillain wants the ring but, when he discovers he might also acquire the weapon, he’s quickly into action. The rest of the story has Blake and his sidekick Tinker fighting the Gentleman, an expert at opening safes, and the Three Musketeers, recently released from prison. The result is one of these very nicely constructed period plots in which our dynamic duo put spanners in the criminal works as we float back and forth between London and Gibraltar. It’s all good clean fun.

“The Wireless Telephone Clue” was the first story in which the Three Musketeers appeared as burglars and robbers fit to terrorise London society. At one level, this is a very simple linear story of three gentlemen thieves who prey on their own class and are making a very good living out of it until, quite by chance, Blake sees two of the most recently stolen items on sale and Tinker hears something unusual on the airwaves. The best way to describe the story is unpretentious. So often, those who write fiction believe they must add detail and pad out the plot. This is efficient in setting the scene, showing how the burglars commit their crimes, and finally watching Blake track them down. There’s nothing very clever about the “detective” side of things. Random chance gives him the information and he and Tinker act upon it to recover much of the stolen loot.

Looking at these two stories in the cold light of 2014, I can understand why the young me would have hoovered up adventure-style thrillers like this. They are very undemanding reads with moderately inventive plots and a bare minimum of action (usually avoiding the more modern habit of explicit violence). The new story by Mark Hodder is slightly knowing and so more fun. The reprint is typical of 1920s fiction and good as far as it goes. So let’s cut to the chase. You do not buy books like this as great literature. They are published as a form of service. There are some characters like the Saint, Bulldog Drummond and Nayland Smith who ought to be remembered as they were originally written. Too often, as in the case of the Saint, their image has been dented by Hollywood. Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper should be read by oldies like me who enjoy the buzz of nostalgia, and by newcomers who want the chance to see what was top of the literary pops up to ninety years ago. I enjoyed the experience.

For reviews of the first five Burton and Swinburne books by Mark Hodder, see:
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
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’s also a standalone called A Red Sun Also Rises.

And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder

July 9, 2014 6 comments

TheReturn Of The Discontinued Man-large

The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2014) is the fifth in the Burton and Swinburne series and it amply demonstrates the problem in having to deal with multiple parallel universes when, as an author, you have taken the strategic decision to limit yourself to a single protagonist. As an aside, the alternative approach is in the completely wonderful, The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold, where one man begets a multitude of himself (and, surprisingly, herself which is good for the perpetuation of themselves). Because we have a single point of view, we therefore face a slightly obscure first few chapters to this novel. In theory, each separate reality in the multiverse is a closed channel but, for our purposes, there’s a coincidence overload, i.e. because so many people in different universes do exactly the same thing at the same time, there’s an overload that breaks down some of the barriers. We first get to see the results of this at precisely 9 pm on the 15th February, 1860, as Babbage performs a critical experiment on the damaged time-travelling suit worn by Edward Oxford. Almost simultaneously in multiple time tracks, the damaged suits disappear. As the time bubble forms around them, there’s damage to Babbage. In part, this is physical with the precise removal of a limb. But it also induces a non-responsive (fugue) state. There’s no sign of life but, in an entirely mechanical being, it’s hard to tell what might have happened to the person stored inside.

In different parts of London, we also get the sudden appearance of Spring Heeled Jacks, all of whom prove to be disoriented but determined to find Burton. As a form of running joke, Burton is then serially barred from restaurants, clubs and organisations such as the Royal Geographical Society because he’s held responsible for all these Jacks turning up and disrupting normal business activities. Thanks in part to his ingestion of Saltzman’s tincture, Burton’s mind is also moving between universes and times. During these episodes, we pick up clues and pointers as to how the parallel worlds are faring and, perhaps more importantly, what happened in the future to persuade Edward Oxford to research time travel. We also have some unusual weather phenomena and, with the deposit of seeds, what seems to be a homage to H.G. Wells’ Martian red weed (the great man does show up again later in the book). However, once this excitement abates, the book becomes a slightly more conventional linear time travel exercise as our motley crew of chrononauts sets off into the future.

Mark Hodder

Mark Hodder

This has the supreme advantage that they may well be the catalyst for rewriting what happens in their future but, whenever they arrive when they are going, there should be a single timeline between their Victorian stating point and their finishing point (whatever the name of this era proves to be). In order to avoid overtaxing themselves and their machine, they plan to make the journey in a series of short hops. To pave the way, members of the Cannibal Club are told to go forth and multiply so there will be children and grandchildren waiting to greet them at each stopping point. Financial arrangements are also put in hand to ensure there will be enough money, if necessary, to rebuild their machine as they move forward in time. This gives us a series of snapshots of how the world could change. This is rather more successful than the first section of the book. It also shows us how Edward Oxford is emerging as the villain of the piece, and prepares the ground for the final battle when our heroic team arrives in the year when Edward Oxford first set off to travel to Victorian times. Needless to say, the time they find is nothing like the time Edward Oxford left. The bow wave of change has preceded them and the first version of Edward Oxford’s time has been completely overwritten.

In tone, most of the humour of the early books has disappeared to be replaced by a slightly more grim feeling as we survey the wreckage of the world as Edward Oxford and Burton’s movement through time, bends the future out of shape. Some of the ideas are interesting and we do have unintended consequences to genetic engineering albeit slightly more heavy-handed this time around to make a political point. But I have the sense this series is reaching the point it should stop. The freshness has gone out of it and there’s a slight air of repetitiveness about some of the elements we encounter. This is not to say another book would not be interesting. The inventiveness to bring this to fruition is outstanding. Indeed, I stand to applaud the sheer ingenuity to weave the preceding four books together to produce this plot. But any more than one to follow The Return of the Discontinued Man would probably kill the golden goose. Needless to say, you should not read this unless you have read the others. You will not have a clue what’s happening.

Once again, the jacket artwork by Jon Sullivan is magnificent.

For reviews of the first four books, see:
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
There are also two standalones called:
A Red Sun Also Rises
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper.

And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder

June 21, 2013 2 comments

Secret Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder

There’s real skill required to write a series. Far more than most people realise. Let’s say the author has signed a three-book deal. That ties him or her to the agreed formula which, in most cases, will be both a group of characters and a particular setting. So, for example, Miss Marple lives in St Mary Mead and, although she’s wont to travel around a little, the basis of her investigative style is drawn from her observation of life in the village. That way, even when she’s on holiday in the West Indies, she can remember what the butcher did to the baker’s assistant that so upset the candlestick maker. In other words, there’s a core magic formula that, after the first few books, turned the remainder into must-haves for the loyal fans. To depart from this formula is to lose the fans. But to do nothing more than repeat the formula will also lose the fans through boredom. There has to be development to keep the core ideas interesting. Hence even Miss Marple must go on holiday.

So, after a highly successful opening set of three, we’re back with The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2013) which is the first in a new three-book deal featuring Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne in a steampunk version of Victorian England which, appropriately enough, began with the assassination of Queen Victoria. If you’re proposing to derail readers into an alternate history, killing off the titular queen for the age is the best possible starting point. The magic of the first book lies in its exuberance. There’s not a page goes by without some new idea or sly joke. As debut novels go, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is one of the best. However, in this moment of heady success, there’s a problem. Once you’ve described the setting and cracked all your best jokes, you have to find something new to write about. Fortunately, the plot of The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is terrific and kept everything moving along nicely even though the repetition of some of the jokes was wearing very thin towards the end. This led us into Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon which opened the door into some very interesting and more serious possibilities. As I said during that review, “. . .an inventive mind could devise a way into a different future. It will be interesting to see whether Pyr offers us the chance to see it unfold.” So my thanks to Pyr for renewing the book deal. This proves to be a particularly ingenious way of developing the plot.

Mark Hodder anonymous in Spain

Mark Hodder anonymous in Spain

Notice my reference to the plot. All the humour that characterised the first in the series has gone. This is altogether darker with the death of an important character, albeit not one we see too often. We’re nevertheless aware of this individual’s significance throughout. The key to understanding just how ingenious the plot lies in the need for all time travel books to follow strict logic. With the death of Queen Victoria in the first novel being caused by a time traveller, we’ve been following the cause and effect of the different changes in history as they occur. At the end of the last book, the situation had grown more complex as a new player entered the game and tried to destabilise the new version of history. With that threat defeated, Burton was left. . . Well that always was the question. Just where was Burton left?

At this point, I’m going to get a little vague because I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of this book. I emphasise that this is a direct continuation of the last trilogy and, although you might enjoy this as a standalone, you will not appreciate just how good it is unless you’ve read the other three in order. This is a serial, not a series of standalones in the same place with the same characters. This time, we’re into Bram Stoker land (appropriately young Bram is a character) with the arrival of a vampire-like force by sea. This time, the ship crashes on to the rocks of Anglesey during a terrible storm with the captain lashed to the wheel and all the crew and passengers (bar one, of course) dead on arrival. This gives us a broad supernatural framework on which to build our multiverse plot. Yes, that’s right. All the messing around in time has been multiplying the branches except there’s one common feature. Sooner or later, there’s a major war. Those of you with some grasp of history will recall our First World War occupied the years 1914 to 1918. In different timelines, this conflict comes at different times but it always happens. However, in this timeline, under the guidance of Abdu El Yezdi, the British have been moving towards a political rapprochement with Germany, therefore making war less inevitable. So the big questions for Burton are to identify Abdu El Yezdi, to explain how he has been giving such good advice, and to find him — sadly this fount of wisdom has stopped transmitting thereby leaving the British government up a creek wondering where their paddle has gone.

We still have some of the steampunk but most of the more extravagant technological innovation has gone in this timeline. There’s also slightly less political discussion, leaving more time for this rather pleasing blend of Victorian/Edwardian style adventure to be updated for modern sensibilities. Putting all this together, The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi is a wonderful continuation of the earlier trilogy, i.e. you really should have read the others in order before coming to this.

Once again the jacket artwork by Jon Sullivan is magnificent.

For reviews of the other four books, see:
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Return of the Discontinued Man
There are also two standalones called:
A Red Sun Also Rises
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper.

And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder

December 9, 2012 Leave a comment

ARedSunAlsoRises

Language is a fickle friend. Just when you think you’ve met all its conditions for a lasting relationship of real meaning, you can suddenly find yourself cast adrift in a fog of uncertainty. To put it mildly, this is a most disconcerting experience. You know all the words but somehow your grasp upon them becomes slippery, as if they are resisting your best efforts to grab hold of the ones best suited to say what you want to say. In my own case, the excuse is one of age. Naturally, as dementia beckons, I’m overcome by the delusion I’m still making sense when, actually, my word selection has gone to pot as senior citizen moments of mental vacuity become whole minutes or even longer. Why am I delaying a discussion of A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2012)? Well, there’s something of a problem with the language and the debate about beliefs and psychology is unconvincing.

Back when I was emerging from the mists of childhood, I enjoyed myself demolishing Victorian and Edwardian adventure books. There’s a wonderfully naive quality to them as heroes dash around, avoiding the predictable annihilation by running faster, jumping higher or being prepared to crawl through sewers no other self-respecting human being would ever think of entering. In the midst of all this, some authors had the temerity to interweave ideas. It’s a radical thing to do. When we’re all expecting derring-do, the author suddenly switches his attention to a discussion of something of profound importance. A classic, albeit slightly later, example of this phenomenon is the Space Trilogy by C S Lewis which pretends to be science fiction but is actually rehearsing the process Christianity has gone through to emerge from early myth-based beliefs into the current faith-based form. So what we have here is a journal supposedly written by a Victorian man who passes through a dimensional fold and, with a young woman by his side, finds himself on an alien world. It’s obviously not a spoiler to reveal this interdimensional movement is not permanent because our hero returns to Earth to write the journal we read (as in Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom novels). So like Elwin Ransom from the Space Trilogy, our hero is sent off to another world so he can learn to be a better person.

Mark Hodder covering his eyes as the windows to his soul

Mark Hodder covering his eyes as the windows to his soul

The other book I need to mention is Cycle of Fire by Hal Clement which, I confess, is one of my favourite books from the 1950s. It catalogues the exploration of the planet Abyorman as it follows its unusual orbit around a binary star, producing sixty-five-year cycles of temperate and hot climate. As Nils Kruger, our young hero, and Dar, his alien “friend”, walk across the landscape, they realise there are extensive ruins from a completely different civilisation yet none of the current inhabitants seem to know anything about the builders. It’s a nice puzzle for the protagonists to solve. A mirror image to this idea emerges in Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton and parallels are found in The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. A Red Sun Also Rises is a more sophisticated variation on the original theme with what begins as a nicely balanced system thrown out of kilter by the unfortunate arrival of an outsider.

If this was a straight science fiction novel of a young human couple who are sent to another world and struggle to survive in a hostile environment, I think it would have been very good. The basic plot idea has been well thought through and there are enough obvious threads to make the threats to our two humans potentially terrifying. But there are two authorial interventions to contend with. The first is the language. Over the last ten years, the occasional book reproducing early writing styles has become two or three bookshop shelves. Some modern authors have been hooked on the notion their work is somehow better if they wrap up their science fiction or fantasy as if written by Jane Austen or some other luminary. Even though I think most of them deluded, their books have been selling in sufficient numbers that each year sees more titles emerging. In this case, we start off with a young and terminally inexperienced Anglican clergyman in the 1880s who dutifully shows Christian charity to a disabled woman. This section is written in a reasonably conventional Victorian style which grows slightly more purple when they move to London. At this point we have the primary theme introduced.

He has been displaced from his quiet parish through his naive reaction to an amusingly corrupt family. Early on in London, he reads Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Later, he literally stumbles on the first victim killed by Jack the Ripper. This produces an emotional crisis. He’s been burdened by guilt because he lacks his father’s simple faith in God. Now he knows true fear. Put the two together and this is not the ideal state of mind in which a man should set off as a missionary. He rationalises his experiences as proving some people are inherently evil. He worries that he lacks essential goodness and is therefore fated to end up as evil as the murderer of the prostitute in Whitechapel. This is a version of Platonic psychology which assumes universal versions of good and evil exist. Further, although there’s a rational part of every mind that should prevail, there are appetites that can overwhelm reason. Such moral weaknesses can lead irrevocably to evil if the desires are strong enough.

If we had stayed with Jules Verne filtered through H G Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, I would have lived with the philosophical debate as fitting into the character of our rather pathetic specimen of humanity as hero. Unfortunately, shortly after arriving on the planet, the natives suddenly affect a spirited version of English not unlike that spoken by the characters in P G Wodehouse. Frankly, this killed my interest almost stone dead. I read it through to the end to see how it was all resolved. There are fantastical machines, potentially in what we now call a steampunk style although they are more ERB-like with aircraft and submarines powered by the energy released from crystals. There are some rather superficial political diversions into the potential merits of hive socialism enforced by a form of mind control and our hero finally reaches peace of mind by abandoning the Platonic view of moral psychology and all associated notions of a kind of internal war between forces of good and evil. Rather he sees everything as being on a single scale of goodness. The psychological resolution is therefore somewhat adjacent to the Aesopian “Hercules and the Waggoner” and the idiomatic need to avoid judging books by their covers. Sadly, A Red Sun Also Rises is a backward step for Mark Hodder. His first two books were exuberant fun. This is somewhat dour and, for me, uninvolving.

For reviews of the other books by Mark Hodder, see:
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Return of the Discontinued Man
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack.

And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.

The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon by Mark Hodder

January 20, 2012 2 comments

It’s always more interesting to read a serial than a series. Decades ago when I was young, I cut my teeth on comics that told their stories in weekly instalments. I’ll never forget the excitement of following the adventures of Dan Dare in The Eagle, Captain Condor and Robot Archie in The Lion, and then the text stories in The Hotspur and The Rover. It was the perfect way to learn the art of storytelling. Series are inherently less interesting because they lack full narrative continuity from one episode to another. The characters may, to a greater or lesser extent, stay the same but there’s little organic growth in their memory of past events or the skills they employ. I remember the deep frustration of American television shows like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I kept wanting Crane to turn to Nelson as Kowalski was yet against threatened by a man in a rubber monster suit and say, “Didn’t something like this happen last week?”

The publishing industry has always relied on series to build reader loyalty. In the days when the average novel came in around 50,000 to 60,000 words, writers could churn out two or three a year to keep their fans happy. Earl Stanley Gardner, for example, produced some eighty Perry Mason novels and a host of other books and stories about other series characters under pseudonyms. Never mind the quality, count the words. Yes, authors did sometimes play honest and write duologies, trilogies or tetralogies where a single story was divided into equal parts. But, more often than not, the publishers were actually selling a series in which we got separate stories set in the same universe with each episode having a different focus. So the primary protagonists might be replaced or time might leap forward several years or decades. This has the marketing advantage of making each book a potential standalone. As with an open-ended series, buyers can start more or less anywhere and then pick off the other books in any order. Only in a minority of cases does the author and publisher produce a continuous narrative spread over several volumes.

All of which brings me to The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon by Mark Hodder. This is the third and last in this run of books featuring Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne. Indeed, like the notorious dead Norwegian Blue, this serial is almost certainly no more in its current form (sorry, that should be, “there will almost certainly be no more”). Why, you ask, should publishers give up on continuing an excellent wheeze like this? Could we not have an origin story or suddenly discover previously unreleased events from the life of Burton? Well, the answer, my friends, is blowing through the structure of this third volume. It does rather leave the alternate England behind. That said, an inventive mind could devise a way into a different future. It will be interesting to see whether Pyr offers us the chance to see it unfold.

As to the meat of this book, what started off serious with an undercurrent of wit often exuberantly breaking through, has now become rather darker in tone. Although we do still have one (later two) of those annoying parrots flying around, it’s kept to a minimum as the cast of characters comes under attack — one or two do fall by the wayside. There are some moderately intense battle scenes and, depending on your point of view, some moments of mild horror. But the real change comes in the emergence of the trilogy’s subtext. In the first two volumes, there are patches of exposition where the philosophies and moral stances of the different factions are explained, but the structure of the plot as predominantly “adventure” encourages us to pass these by fairly quickly. Mark Hodder now brings the key arguments to the fore.

This is not Mark Hodder on the left receiving the P K Dick Award

Take the question of how power should be exercised through the state. Is the older model of an autocracy like a monarchy/empire and an elite of “nobles” the most efficient form of government? Or is the form of government somewhat irrelevant once a certain size of population is achieved? No single leader or a small elite can be everywhere all the time to monitor and control what’s happening. For purely practical purposes, there has to be some devolution of authority. So the quality of life for the many depends on how the delegates use their power and whether they are held accountable if they abuse that power. You might have a system in which the few literally enslave the many and are never accountable unless held liable by a jury of their peers. Or you might have a society where all are ostensibly free but, unless each individual is born into wealth or privilege, the threat of poverty forces the majority to surrender some of their independence. Without a framework of laws granting rights to the people and courts to enforce them, the majority are always vulnerable. Should wars break out, they are cannon fodder no matter who rules.

So what about sexism, racism and all the other discriminations that can blight lives during the peace? How should knowledge be expanded and how far should states go in educating the people? As we know all too well, many scientific discoveries have unfortunate side effects. In a world where greed dominates, such discoveries may be exploited regardless of the harm they cause. If they are denied access to the underlying science, the majority may never understand what causes their health and other problems. This allows the elite to continue acquisition of wealth without accountability. The education system is therefore distorted to ensure the appropriate classes of people are kept in ignorance. Women may be denied some or all access to knowledge except in areas of skill thought acceptable to their gender. Racial groups may not be taught to read. And so on. Returning to the question of morality, how should the scientists react when they see how their work is being abused? If we believe in universal laws of morality, e.g. as God-given, then scientists should act to reduce the damage caused. In a more open and democratic society, different factions could debate these issues and there’s a chance reasoned conclusions will be acted on. In more autocratic societies, difficult scientists may simply be eliminated. What’s done and how it’s done is ultimately determined by whether individuals, and through them the state, have a conscience. What’s clear is that, should an übermensch emerge, he or she would probably not consider laws of any kind applicable. This could be the ultimate force for good or evil depending on your point of view.

Those who have read the first two books will know that everything becomes unhinged because of the arrival of Spring Heeled Jack. This unleashes the wild outflowing of technology and undermines the emerging influence of morality that might civilise European and Russian societies. It also interrupts the plans of Burton to marry. How different it would all have been had Jack’s time travel been interrupted at an early stage. A very different future would have emerged. I will stop at this point because I don’t want to disturb your enjoyment of how this volume squares the circle. My only reservation lies in the length. I think it takes too long for the expedition to progress through its various African challenges. That said, The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon is an entirely satisfactory ending to one of the better trilogies of the last decade, i.e. it’s one excellent story spread over three books. For this reason, I suspect you will be confused and unhappy if you try this without first reading one or both the other books. Ideally, start at the beginning with The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack.

For reviews of the first two, the fourth and fifth books, see:
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
The Return of the Discontinued Man.
There are also two standalones called:
A Red Sun Also Rises
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper.

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.

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder

June 5, 2011 5 comments

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.

Mark Hodder placing a new value on English as a foreign language

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 three books in the series are:
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
The Return of the Discontinued Man.
There are also two standalones called:
A Red Sun Also Rises
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper.

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.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder

March 5, 2011 6 comments

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.

Mark Hodder enjoying Spain

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.

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