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.