by Thomas Brennan
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Thomas Brennan's Doktor Glass is a nice change of pace from so many of the "steampunk" novels that are set amidst the Victorian period. Although his novel takes place in November of 1899, he avoids many of the clockwork and brass mechanisms which are indicative of steampunk. Instead, his detective, Matthew Langton, must deal with a grisly murder conducted in the shadow of one of the engineering achievements of the age, and must also contend with the spiritualism that was rampant in Victorian society.
Brennan acknowledges that there is more to England than London by setting his story 200 miles northwest of the capital in Liverpool where he places the easternmost end of the Span, a massive bridge built between England and America and engineered by Henry Marc Brunel, the son of the famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel. When a faceless corpse of a Boer turns up near the bridge shortly before it is slated to be christened in a ceremony attended by Queen Victoria, Langton is assigned the task as much to break him out of the funk his wife's death has left him in as to find the murderer. His investigation not only indicates a potential conspiracy to destroy the Span, but also raises the possibility that the Jar Boys, a spiritual group that claims to capture the souls of the dying, may have captured Langton's wife's soul, and Langton expands his investigation to include them.
Langton's investigation is not clean or orderly. With the assistance of Sergeant McBride, Langton follows up numerous leads regarding the Span, the dead Boer, and the Jar Boys. Despite not really knowing anything about the Jar Boys, or even fully believing in them, at the beginning of his investigation, it quickly becomes apparent that everyone else in Liverpool is aware of them and the three rival gangs who try to collect souls, with the ultimate moriarty of the criminals to be known by the nom-de-crime of Doktor Glass. Brennan provides numerous possibilities for the identity of Doktor Glass, including some very clever ones, although the actual identity seems rather obvious early on. The real question is how much of the Jar Boy's activities is real and what Doktor Glass's ultimate goal is.
While the investigation meanders and links numerous crimes and conspiracies, Brennan presents a much tighter vision of Liverpool in 1899. With the massive towers of the Span a constant reminder that the city is not the one that existed in our own nineteenth century, Brennan creates a Liverpool which breaths and seems populated by a variety of people, from the workers to the downtrodden to the wealthy and those who prey upon them. Langton's office at police headquarters is a microcosm of Liverpool, with his boss, Purcell, and the mysterious government agent, Fallows, above him, McBride and office boy Henry below him, and fellow investigator, Forbes Patterson, a possible ally in Langton's quest for truth, justice, and Doktor Glass. However, just as Langton can't trust the various potential suspects outside his office, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a leaker in his own office, and he no longer knows who he can trust.
Doktor Glass presents a satisfying, and complex, mystery set against a fully realized nineteenth century Liverpool. Matthew Langtonis a competent investigator who has built up a cast of support personnel and has relationships, sometimes troubled, not just with his co-workers, informants, and suspects, but also with his deceased wife and her family, which adds a depth and interest to his character
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