Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review - George Mann's The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes Volume One

The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes Volume One by George Mann
Published by: Titan Books
Publication Date: October 22nd, 2013
Format: Paperback, 400 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

From disappearing valets to monstrosities lurking in the shadows of Cheyne Walk, creatures from the deep to lost Indian jewels, become an armchair detective with the best from Sir Maurice Newbury to the Doctor John Watson. And every great detective has to have his or her Moriarty. We learn more about Sir Maurice's adversary, Lady Arkwell, as well as Veronica Hobbes's "chess" partner with whom she has had several contretemps, Zenith the Albino. Whether you are returning to the world of Newbury and Hobbes or just stopping in for your first visit, this collection of stories will chill your spine and leave you wanting to read just one more story before your bedtime. That is if you can sleep once you find out the secret of "What Lies Beneath."

I have said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again, books with short stories are always a risk. There's the whole consistency issue as well as flow. I can guarantee that you will spend more time thinking about that one story that wasn't up to scratch then you do all the other ones that were great. But more importantly is the flow of the book. Because each story is so different and starts a new narrative there's sometime not the impetus to keep going to the end, especially if you hit one of those weaker stories. Luckily The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes is the exception that proves the rule full of unique individual stories within a connected world.

The Newbury and Hobbes series has always lent itself to comparisons with Sherlock Holmes, and rightfully so in my mind. Therefore, like Conan Doyle's writing, it lends itself to the short story format. In fact sometimes the longer Newbury and Hobbes books have too much going on and these little stories are a nice way to have a short and sweet little tale that isn't bogged down by the overarching narrative but still gives you nudges and winks as to the universe they inhabit.

What sets this above other compendiums though is that we are given insight into George's process. At the back of the book there is a timeline of events (very handy), but more importantly little story notes in which George talks about why he wrote the story or what drove his decisions. It gives you a feeling that at the end of perusing this volume, like Newbury and Bainbridge, you have sat down on opposites sides of the fireplace in great comfy chairs and had a chinwag with George as to what he was doing. The insight into his writing makes it all the more memorable. There was one turn of phrase that caught me most when he was discussing "The Maharajah's Star" and that was that he likes the "smaller, nested stories that all come together at the last moment." This is exactly how I feel and also how I think some of the stories work and some don't.

To succeed the stories need to be encapsulated, like a little jewel that sparkles on it's own but only at the end does it shine out and radiate among the expanded universe. Which is an overly flowery way of saying separate but connected. Take "Christmas Spirits" as the prime example and easily the weakest story in the book. In this loose re-imagining of A Christmas Carol Newbury dwells on his life and what has happened and what is to come. This stories makes almost no sense without the knowledge gleaned from the longer books. It pulled me out of the moment and destroyed the flow of being entranced by these jewel like stories.  Which goes to show what a balancing act it is when compiling a collection. Just one that's not quite right and you're distracted.

But this one flaw which might have more to do with my hatred of that particular Dickens tale leads me to that aspect which George just nailed, and yes, it oddly has to do with Dickens. George is able to mimic other writers. I wouldn't say he's aping them, because despite giving the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins his writing is still distinctly his own; clean, concise and conversational, with an approachability that I feel Nancy Mitford is the paragon of and which George captures as well. But he's able to lend an air to his stories that connect with writers that are contemporary to his stories, giving them a depth most other Steampunk books aren't able to do.

In my favorite story "The Dark Path" George gives us a more classic detective story that brings to mind Wilkie Collins and The Moonstone... a copy of which is found in the missing valet's room. A coincidence? I think not! "What Lies Beneath" gives us an utterly delicious and creepy story that would have made Poe proud. While the aforementioned "Christmas Spirits" channels some Dickens and "The Case of the Night Crawler" brings John Watson back to life, though in a far more modern story then Conan Doyle would have penned. By writing in this way he acknowledges his predecessors while creating his own path. I am again reminded of something George said in his story notes. George says that in "Old Friends" he shows that "the old guard [can] retire in peace ... safe in the knowledge that someone else is out there now." Well, the old writers can retire in peace safe in the knowledge that George is carrying on their legacy in grand style but never forgetting what he owes to them!


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