The Hound of the D’Urbervilles
As I may have
mentioned before, critics don’t always know WHY they like or dislike a work.
Since it’s their job, they will backtrack and try to figure it out, and latch
on to one thing or another. That this may contradict an opinion in an earlier
or later review is no obstacle.
I’ve just read
two books that do similar metafictional things, but I only liked one of them, and I'm not sure why.
Writers have been mixing and matching fictional and historical characters, and sticking characters from one genre into another, long before Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. That's part of the appeal of steampunk.
On paper, I ought
to like The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar (a male Israeli author, if you’re curious). It is steampunk, with no obvious fantasy
elements (ghosts, vampires, magic), and it explains how its steampunk
technology came to be. It includes a mix of real and fictional characters,
several derived from Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. It involves a poet and
bookseller, and pays homage to several fictional authors (some out of their
actual time, but never mind). Yet it left me cold. I will try to explain why,
but, remember, I’m only guessing.
The Bookman tells its story through the eyes of Orphan, a young poet in an altered
Victorian England. One alteration: Queen Victoria is a human-sized intelligent
lizard, as are many of the upper class. The prime minister is Moriarty, who is constructing
a space cannon out of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells
to launch a probe (so he says) to Mars. History changed in the 16th
century or so when Amerigo Vespucci voyaged to Caliban’s Island (out of
Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and the lizards (Les Lizards, from the French
for some reason) emerged. America is called Vespuccia. Among the technological changes
are sophisticated automatons.
The antagonist of
the book is the title character, a sort of terrorist who disrupts large public
gatherings and events with exploding books. One event is a one-man show by Bram
Stoker’s actor friend and employer Henry Irving of The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner (which is now about Les Lizards); another is the attempted launching
of the Mars probe, at which Orphan’s beloved is killed.
The Bookman then
dragoons Orphan to his cause, in exchange for which he will return Orphan’s
beloved to life. Orphan doesn’t exactly believe him or trust him, but he has
little choice. Aiding him in this task is Jules Verne, along with a couple of
his fictional characters: Capt. Nemo/Prince Dakkar and Robur the Conqueror.
discovers a connection between Les Lizards and the Bookman, and must choose
sides. The book ends in a satisfactory way, leaving room for sequels or not
(there is already a second book in the series, though with a different setting
So, what didn’t I
like? One thing is that Tidhar or his editors had a distracting habit of
beginning a paragraph with one character speaking, and ending it with another.
Then, too, Orphan is a bit of a disappointment as a protagonist. His secret
notwithstanding, he’s a bit of a bore, acted upon more than acting. Then, while
Les Lizards explains the advanced technology out of time, I didn’t find them
too believable. And why, if they’ve been ruling England for 300 years does
their queen happen to have the same name as the human queen of the era? Is the
But I acknowledge
that this is not sufficient reason to explain my dislike of the book. Maybe it
was the wrong time for me to read it.
(The next book in
the series, Camera Obscura, features a swashbuckling Milady deWinter from
Dumas’ “Three Musketeers.” I may give it a try. )
On the other
hand, I loved The Hound of the D’Urbervilles by Kim Newman, featuring the
Watson-like memoirs of Professor Moriarty, as recorded by his lieutenant Col.
Sebastian Moran. It is in some ways a parody of Holmes, with titles and cases
that superficially resemble the Great Detective’s but involve characters from
other, contemporary fiction, or who are destined to appear in future fiction.
Hound of the D’Urbervilles” section is a parody/imitation of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (and superior, to my mind, to the serious-minded but similar "Hound" imitation "The Giant Rat of Sumatra" which I read and reviewed last year), but
it is also a sequel of sorts to Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.”
involve Irene Adler (while to Holmes she was always “the woman,” to Moriarty
she was “that bitch!”), the murder victims from Holmes and Watson’s first case, A Study in Scarlet (along with the hero of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple
Sage), and the Royal Astronomer from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (whom
Moriarty only dupes into thinking there is an imminent Martian invasion).
Another tale has Moriarty and Moran
gathering up various cursed objects from other fictions and their cinematic
versions, including Stoker’s Jewel of the Seven Stars (film version: Blood
from the Mummy’s Tomb), Doyle’s “The Six Napoleons” (film version: The Pearl
of Death), Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse" and Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (featuring a teenage Kaspar Guttman).
As with The
Bookman, there is no real supernatural element. Unlike it, there is little (perhaps none) super
advanced technology either, so it’s not steampunk per se, but it takes the kind
of fun with history and literature that steampunk does.
Maybe that’s the
difference: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles is fun, and The Bookman isn’t. Or,
rather, I found the one fun, and the other not.
It also helps
that Newman and I are on the same wavelength as to the films, television and literature we love (another character in
one of the stories is an obscure Victorian crook/detective whom I first encountered
– and perhaps Newman did as well – on the TV anthology series The Rivals of
Sherlock Holmes). Even the framing device – the discovery of Moran’s
manuscript in the present day in a famed criminal’s bank – parallels a scene
from the original cut of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The footage was cut and is lost, but I read it in a contemporaneous novelization
of the film. Perhaps Newman did, too.
I’m not sure if Newman
plans any sequels to his Moriarty book (I guess it depends upon whether he
decides to have Moriarty escape his death at Reichenbach Falls), but if you’re looking
for more of the same, Newman’s Anno Dracula series is being reprinted, in
which he postulates that Dracula defeats van Helsing and company, puts the bite
on Queen Victoria and becomes the Royal Consort and de facto ruler of England, making
vampirism chic and the way to get ahead. Newman adds just about every fictional
and film vampire to the mix, and a Jack the Ripper-like vampire serial killer with
a silver knife. The first book is one of my favorites. Latter volumes weren’t
as appealing to me, but there’s a new one forthcoming that I’ll have to check
out: Johnny Alucard (a spelled-backwards pseudonym for Dracula, the last name of which only was first utilized in Universal's 1943 Son of Dracula, while the full name was a disciple of Dracula in Hammer's Dracula A.D. 1972).