Victorian London will be forever etched into the minds of readers that enjoy twisty mysteries and macabre adventures set against a history sharply defined in books and movies. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories first come to mind, as well as later forays such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore. Stephen Spielberg even took a run at the genre and the setting in Young Sherlock Holmes.
I have to admit, I’m a bonafide sucker for the milieu. I grew up hanging onto Sherlock’s coattails while the game was afoot, and I never quite recovered from that first blush of fog-crowded streets and Hansom cabs clattering across cobblestones. Oklahoma author Will Thomas has set up a fine Sherlock riff in his own series about Baker and Llewelyn, Victorian detectives.
But Jonathan Barnes’s new novel, The Somnambulist, takes pre-conceived notions of Victorian mystery novels and adventures and turns them on their ears. And this is only his first novel!
I was captured at once by Barnes’s writing. He favors a blend of modern, easy to read language mixed with a shading of the long-winded Victorian trappings and a touch of purple prose. It’s a fine brew and I found myself sailing along within just a few pages. His writing is so smooth, and his imagery so evocative, that the world of Edward Moon and the Somnambulist grew larger and deeper and more textured with every word.
I have to admit, Edward Moon isn’t one of the most likeable people you’re going to find in this novel, but he is our chief detective. Like Holmes, Moon is a quirky individual filled with his own ego and intelligence. He’s a stage magician by trade, but his intellect is keen and he’s knowledgeable about a great many things. Moon is also rather novel in his relaxation pursuits, and I found myself jarred quite deeply when he elected to sample the wares of a local house of prostitution. I decided at that point not to like him overly much, but the traits – all too human and poignant for some weird reason – made him even more fascinating.
But where Moon has a few things hidden from the reader that are eventually revealed, his companion – the Somnambulist – remains an enigma. He’s a large, strong man who can’t speak but does communicate through a portable chalkboard he carries with him. He also has the peculiar ability of being able to become a veritable pincushion for swords that Moon thrusts through him in their magic act, and for enemies that battle him. He’s got an unexplained fetish for milk.
Together, these two form our crime-fighting duo for the novel. In the beginning, Moon is vaguely interested in the murder of Cyril Honeyman. At first, Honeyman’s death is believed to be a suicide. But Moon believes it’s murder.
I really liked the mystery set-up and the way that Moon and the Somnambulist were first brought into the plot – whereupon attempts were made to scare them off, prompting their efforts to force their way back in again. All the while the police were buzzing around trying to figure out what Moon knew. I enjoyed the familiar romp a lot.
Then about halfway through the novel, The Somnambulist takes a hard right turn into the Twlight Zone – without the warning signpost up ahead. I felt like Wile E. Coyote when he goes out over that empty canyon after the Road Runner. I’d been poking along with the novel at that point, simply enjoying the well-written read. Then the thing turned out to not quite be as simple as I’d believed.
I can’t tell you any more. You’ll have to read it to see where and to what lengths Barnes’s fertile mind takes you. However, I recommend the read whole-heartedly. Besides the quirky characters, some tantalizing mystery reveals, and a huge backstory, Barnes offers a wonderful view of Victorian London. The city comes to life on every page.
Barnes crafted a compelling read and characters with this first novel. I can’t wait to see where he takes his readers next. I’m going to be one of them.