Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Bounder of adventure

“'And what does that make you! The feted artist, the dashing dandy. But by night - philanderer, sodomite and assassin!'

As a thumbnail sketch of me that wasn't half bad.

[Spoiler] aimed the revolver at my face and cocked it. 'And so... farewell...'”

Mark Gatiss, The Vesuvius Club, p. 238.

Knocked through this leisuredly in the last couple of days. Lucifer Box is a caddish, Edwardian portraitist and secret agent with rather beautiful hands. Having deftly seen off an anarchist for his country, he’s set investigating the death of a colleague who may have stumbled on something sinister in the proximity of Naples...

As you'd expect from one of the The League of Gentlemen this is a frothy adventure full of monstrous invention. Characters have names like Tom Bowler (ha ha!), Bella Pok (ho ho!) and Cretaceous Unmann, and there's some horrifying punnery - at the prospect of sharing a bike ride, Lucifer admits he’s never been a “fan de cycle”.

It's witty, yes, but rather than a comic novel it's a ghoulish genre piece with a wry narrator. Box is a callous rogue who'll neatly undercut the tension with a well-placed, savage bon-mot.

As a genre novel, it's very generic - reminding me variously of: Austin Powers; Devlin Waugh; the Avengers; Flashman; Jason King; that Steve Coogan Hammer-horror spoof; Wodehouse's Psmith; and even the Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town. Oh, and lashings and lashing of Bond. The villain of course has a secret base inside a volcano.

This is not necessarily a criticism – it’s a comfy read, cosy because its stylings are so familiar. Yet it's still full of surprises.

Like the recent Rupert-Everett-as-Holmes (with Sherlie discussing Freud with Watson's emancipated bit of skirt), being this side of the Empress Victoria means it all feels so zestfully modern.

(Holmes is suffused with modernity, the canon chock full of the latest gadgets and theories – finger printing, psychology, photography, bicycles, telegraphy and high-speed trains. There's also one about genetic experiments (that results in the concoction of monkey serum, admittedly). Sherlock could not have achieved his prowess in any earlier age.)

References to Wilde and Beardsley (as well as King Edward) place Box's sexual dalliances in context. It's all a lot ruder than I’d expected, though the frequent lubricities are never gone into.

It’s never more explicit than any James Bond, but Box’s candid disclosures about the broad sweep of his sex life are what really sets this apart from its generic stablemates. There's something thrillingly seditious about Bond as a bit of a nancy...

The belle epoch stylings extend to the physical book – Ian Bass’s lovely line drawings owe something to Beardsley without being entirely pastiche. The dust jacket also appears worn and frayed, as if a much beloved second-hand copy. Really nice touch that.

Speaking of the high arts, the July 2006 issue of the glossy British Art Journal (£10.50 from your usual supplier of lavishment) includes the first published material on old Greek stuff as written by the elegant Dr. We shall sup fine wine.

3 comments:

Will said...

"Dr Terrible's House of Horrible" is the Steve Coogan thing - and, not being an Alan Partridge or Saxondale fan, it's my favourite of all his stuff. (And Gatiss is in one of them.)

0tralala said...

Will said: "Dr Terrible's House of Horrible".

Yes, that's the one. It reminded me especially of the episode "Lesbian Vampire Lovers of Lust".

Cameron Mason said...

Haven't been able to locate a copy of The Vesuvius Club in print in Australia, but my local ABC Shop is selling an audio version, read by the author.

I rather enjoyed listening to it.