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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.

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A review by Nathan Brazil

'A memory stirred. A case he'd read about from two or three years ago; something concerning a girl being attacked by -- by a ghost which escaped by taking prodigious leaps -- by a thing that breathed fire -- by a creature known as -- Spring Heeled Jack.'
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The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack takes inspiration from one of the most enduring mysteries of the Victorian age, then weaves it into a tale of time travel and history unmade. Author Mark Hodder's cast list includes appearances by many celebrities of the day; the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale, a very young Oscar Wilde, naturalist Charles Darwin, and the poet Algernon Swinburne. Taking the lead role is the explorer and writer Sir Richard Francis Burton. Part steampunk, part alternate history, with a liberal dollop of detective thriller, it is a melting pot that has the potential to produce something tasty, or a nauseating mess.

From the outset, it will be evident to anyone reasonably well versed in British history, that what Mark Hodder presents is a lovingly re-imaged version of the Victorian Age. The life, and subsequent times, of Sir Richard Francis Burton, almost immediately diverges from established history. In the main due to the activities of Spring Heeled Jack; a character who beats up Burton early on, or from his own perspective, somewhat later. The central premise here is one man, Edward Oxford, attempting to erase a stain on the history of his family, using a time suit of his own design. What Oxford wants to do is stop his infamous ancestor from ever making what was, in true history, an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, the mission goes disastrously wrong, accidentally causing the demise of the monarch. What follows is an out and out romp, where style is always more important than substance. Sir Richard Francis Burton, who becomes the King's Agent, is tasked with finding Spring Heeled Jack, and putting an end to his unpleasant activities, many of which involve assaulting young girls. Even in its altered state -- for example, Brunel invented geothermal power about three hundred years before its time -- what should have been Victorian England is well realised. In particular the squalor of the age, and its acceptance by a populace who knew their place. In Mark Hodder's version there are, among other inventions, steam-powered gyroscopically stabilised velocipede bicycles, and armchairs attached to personal gyrocopters. Spring Heeled Jack, literally bouncing around the era, and losing his grip on sanity by the day, at first attempts to put things right. But he is eventually driven to concentrate on ensuring his own survival. Even if that means raping his own ancestor! Most of the ideas work to propel the story along, although some trip it up a little. The joke of having genetically altered parrot messengers predisposed toward abusing sender and recipient quickly became old, as did the notion of door-to-door mail delivery dogs. Who would want to receive mail that had dog slobber all over it. Rather than sprinkling the story with added fun, as I have no doubt was the author's intention, sometimes I got the feeling that he'd become carried away, and where the little things were concerned, was poorly served by his editor.

Tongue-in-cheek and mostly light-hearted, this is the kind of book where disbelief is sometimes suspended by a thread, and details are intentionally overlooked. Anyone wanting to know exactly how Florence Nightingale manages to graft brains together, or the technicalities of the advanced life-support mechanism that allows Isambard Kingdom Brunel to survive his own death, will be sadly disappointed. Similarly, there is no attempt to explain why or how some of the greatest minds of a generation descend into a clinical madness which, in true history, was not seen until the evil of Josef Mengele. But as time travel -- re-imaged history -- steampunk novels go, this was a blast of alternate Victoriana, peppered with a cast who veered from credible to Dick Van Dyke and back again. An appendix is provided in which the author helpfully gives short explanations as to the differences between his fiction and the real lives of those esteemed individual whose names he has borrowed. Quite how much longevity there is for Burton, the King's Agent, and Swinburne, the masochistic poet, remains to be seen. But I can recommend this title to readers who like pre-information age adventure, laced with a few smiles and topped off with very British eccentricity.

Copyright © 2010 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at www.inkdigital.org.


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