If the basic idea behind Kim Newman’s period fantasy Angels of Music (Titan Books) initially struck me as rather dubious – Charlie’s Angels reset in a pulpish Paris of the 19th and early 20th centuries – the execution quickly hooked me. Comprised of five stories devoted to different heroines from the time teaming together as threesomes to solve seemingly supernatural crimes, Angels ups the ante by making its “Charlie” Erik, the infamous Phantom of the Opera. Where the television Charlie passed out his assignments through the reassuring intercom voice of John Forsythe, Erik proves a more ambiguously controlling boss, sending his operatives out from the dank and gloomy depths of the Paris Opera House.
Plundering pop culture wittily, Newman makes each team distinct (though some individual Angels get short shrift) and suited to their particular case. Many of the Angels will immediately be familiar to literature lovers – Irene Adler, “The Woman” from Sherlock Holmes; Riolama, the bird girl from Green Mansions; Liza Doolittle – while others are a trace more obscure. (I did feel proud of myself for recognizing Trilby O’Farrell from George du Maurier’s Svengali novel.) The antagonists from each tale, including the title figure from a classic of American cinema, also prove absorbing.
But Angels of Music is more than a game of Spot the Reference; it’s also a rousing collection of genre fiction. Blending pulp creations (Les Vampires, Fantomas, the Phantom himself) with actual moments in Paris history (the Grand Guignol theatre, the Dreyfus Affair) culminating in the 1910 Great Flood of Paris, Newman pits his Angels against blackmailers and serial killers, clockwork creations and vampires, sadists and would-be war profiteers. The final episode, set during the flood, unites Angels from different eras against an antagonist striking at the Opera Ghost Agency itself.
Newman shifts perspectives throughout, primarily focusing on the viewpoints of his canniest women. The two strongest heroines in the series, Irene Adler and the early detective fiction writer Katharine Reed, also feature prominently in the book’s action-packed finish, which leaves room for a sequel going further into the 20th Century. As for their boss, the seemingly ageless Erik remains a spooky enigma even through an appended coda. Though some of his agents would doubtless disagree, some mysteries remain best unresolved.