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The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
Mark Hodder
Pyr, 377 pages

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
Mark Hodder
Mark Hodder is the creator and caretaker of the BLAKIANA Web site (sextonblake.co.uk), which he designed to celebrate, record, and revive Sexton Blake, the most written about fictional detective in English publishing history. A former BBC writer, editor, journalist, and Web producer, he has worked in all the new and traditional medias and was based in London for most of his working life until 2008, when he relocated to Valencia in Spain to de-stress and write novels. He can most often be found at the base of a palm tree, hammering at a laptop. Mark has a degree in cultural studies and loves British history (1850 to 1950, in particular), good food, cutting-edge gadgets, cult TV (ITC forever!), Tom Waits, and a vast assortment of oddities.

Mark Hodder Website
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SF Site Review: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

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Messing with the timeline can drive a man insane. That's one of the lessons Richard Burton and several other characters in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack learn as they are confronted with an apparition who, among his various crimes, asserts that the world they live in was never meant to be. That world is nineteenth century England, a world of coal-engine driven taxis, helicopter lounge chairs, and genetically engineered messenger pigeons that taunt and insult the message's sender and recipient. In short, this is the steampunk vision of the Victorian Era, a world in which social and cultural mores are struggling to keep up with leapfrog developments in technology.

His adventures in Arabia and explorations along the Nile behind him, Sir Richard Burton is on the brink of getting married and turning to a life in the diplomatic corps. But an unexpected commission from Lord Palmerston sets Burton off to investigate strange occurrences and crimes around London. That investigation quickly brings an encounter with the legendary figure known as Spring Heeled Jack, and eventually brings Burton to the heart of why it is that his London has changed so much since the assassination of Queen Victoria.

That's the outline of the plot, and it makes for a good mystery/adventure story. The best parts, though, in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack are the details of life in mid-nineteenth century England. Newsboys and chimney sweeps still ply their trades, though with different tools. The price of technological change is being felt in the very air, London suffers from extreme, deadly smog. While the upper classes take full advantage of the new technologies, characters like boarding house ladies and taxi drivers struggle to hold on to a traditional concept of life in the midst of a strange, new world. It's those glimpses into the everyday world that give Spring Heeled Jack its substance, and provides a solid setting for the action and adventure to come.

That's where Spring Heeled Jack falls down a bit. Characters we're rooting for, especially Burton and his ally, the poet Percy Swinburn, have plenty of depth, but too many of the villains in this piece come off more as cartoon characters than serious bad guys. The idea of an evil Florence Nightingale partnered with a demented Charles Darwin has plenty of potential, but without knowing more than we learn about how they came to be that way, they're little more than James Bond movie villains with famous names.

That doesn't prevent The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack from being an enjoyable read, the pleasures of spending time in a slightly altered past are all here, the characterizations of everyday people, and the heroes, are spot on, and there's plenty of adventure along the way. That the potential for more was here is hardly an unforgivable flaw in a first novel, and suggests that Mark Hodder, having written one good novel, may be capable of bigger and better things in either the future or a re-imagined past.

Copyright © 2010 by Greg L. Johnson

Having never been there, reviewer Greg L Johnson has just about as much knowledge of the fantastic London of fiction as he does of the real thing. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.


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