Monday, January 25, 2010

the devil in amber

The encouraging thing about The Devil in Amber is that its title is still larger than its author’s name, which happens to be Mark Gatiss. I’d enjoyed the radio play Murder Every Monday, adapted by Gatiss for Radio 4, and since this book (second in his series of original novels for Lucifer Box) slotted in at roughly the same time period, I thought I would give it a go (I was also roped in, I confess, by the admirably Art Deco cover). I was well-rewarded, as the book is well-paced, throwing a surprise at the reader every few pages, and the narrator’s voice is charming and roguish. As the back cover suggests, it owes a lot to Sherlock Holmes, Rafael Sabatini, Oscar Wilde, and Indiana Jones, among others. Yet I will say I enjoyed it a lot more than I enjoyed “The Idiot’s Lantern”!

Lucifer Box, the name, is of course a joke in itself (and his sister is called Pandora!)—matches used to be called lucifers—and neither the hero nor the book take themselves too seriously, though there is a lot of blood and gore, the last scene is quite mad and monstrous, and the sex is more graphic than Torchwood. It has a really outstanding first line, He was an American, so it seemed only fair to shoot him. Like Bond, Devil in Amber is the sum of its settings: a Christmastide, Prohibition-era New York; a Norfolk island; and the Franco-Swiss border.
Lucifer is an artist and also a secret agent and though aware of his own gorgeousness, he’s also aware of his middle age. It might take some readers a bit of time to get used to the fact that(in his own charming metaphor), And, if like me, he travelled on the number 38 bus as well as the 19 (you can almost see Russell Tovey as Rex the bellboy gigolo!). I began to wonder if the book was going to be completely populated by men, but then the charming heroine Aggie shows up. Lucifer rather indulgently corrupts her innocence, but I was quite pleased that I understood the riddle of her name before he did (I rarely manage that). There are some very amusing secondary characters, more caricatures than anything else, such as Mrs. Croup, who’s obsessed with murderers (she made me think of Ma Tyler!!).

There are a couple of nods to Doctor Who, unsurprisingly, in setting, theme, and even little details like the 99 club, which is a speakeasy constructed from the R-99 which crashed (and should have killed Charley Pollard). No one can be trusted and everyone’s ripe for a double-cross. However, in a rather un-Who-ish fashion, the supernatural is taken at, er, face value and this is where the comparison with Indiana Jones seems most apt. This comes to a feverish pitch during the last scene, which actually gave me nightmares.

I guess what makes this so enjoyable is the confidence with which it’s written. The era and the conventions are as perfectly achieved as Patrick O’Brian does with his Master and Commander books, and the authorial voice is so assured, it’s difficult not to take off running with Lucifer from the first page.

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