Thursday, June 18, 2009

[review] Some Danger Involved

Some Danger Involved:
The opening salvo in a series of Victorian murder mysteries a la Sherlock Holmes. 1884 and Thomas Llewelyn is hired by Cyrus Barker as an assistant private enquiry agent (not a 'detective', thank you). This is more like Bond meets Holmes, only the two aspects of Bond are split between these two: Barker, the over-achieving martial arts-streetwise mentor to the younger, too-distractable-by-women junior.

In my desperation to inject as much reading for pleasure before today (well, actually yesterday), when school resumed, I read all 5 of the novels, Some Danger Involved being the first. It is also, so far, the best. Each one has a fairly solid story, each set in a different aspect of life in London 130 years ago. While this was occasionally a bit too pedagogical for my tastes (I already knew what it means to sit shiva, having done so before), it would provide a shock to most modern (read: ill-informed) readers that
a) there was a significant Chinese population in London at the time,
b) there was a significant population of just about any other large ethnic group,
c) the technology at the end of the Victorian era isn't so archaic, or
d) the social concerns aren't all that different than ours, and
e) murder in 1884 is just like murder in 2009

Told in the first person by Mr. Llewelyn, it describes his transformation from a desperate man incapable of getting a really good job due to a brief stint in jail to an apprentice to a dangerous man in a dangerous profession. A 'frustrated storyteller', the author describes this character. We discover the novelties of London and the gradual revelation of a mysterious man by the limitations of the narrator, whose education we share. Subsequent volumes of the story describe the development of Llewelyn from the failed university student to a man more educated in very different aspects of life.

Each of the novels starts out with a prologue by Llewelyn describing a critical step of the story, e.g. a fight to the death, only to step back to the beginning of the story with Chapter 1. It is a mark of a good storyteller (in this case, the author, not the narrator) that we can know what is going to happen by Chapter 20 and still be on the edge of our seats wondering if he's going to live by the next page of Chapter 10. This is reminiscent of Inigo's narration in Captain Alatriste (a fantastic book).

The Hellfire Conspiracy is by far the lamest offering, with far too many historical references tossed in by really inappropriate characters (some street urchin knowing who Madame Trousseau is, maybe; knowing the full-length name of her museum - be real). It also has a few leaps of complete irrationality. It's not just a leap of deduction by a highly skilled deducer - it was just a leap leaving me wondering if the author left out a few chapters.

To Kingdom Come follows our Intrepid Heroes on the path of Irish nationalists (c. 1884, read: terrorists). As with the other novels, there are historical figures in the book often in a rather different light than is typically portrayed.

Hopefully Thomas will drag his heels a bit longer before the next offering to keep the quality up. As much as I enjoy reading serials like this (or Anne Perry or Elizabeth George), it's only enjoyable if the quality of the books is fairly level. Cranking them out every other year can be draining on the author's ability to express his/her creativity. I guess I'll need to break down (after the semester's done) and read one of the Sherlock Holmes novels. (The preview for the up-coming film staring Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes looks intriguing and potentially too farcical for my tastes.)

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