Monday, 20 December 2010

Burton & Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack

Mark Hodder

It is 1861, and Albertian Britain is in the grip of conflicting forces. Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labour; Libertines oppose restrictive and unjust laws and flood the country with propaganda demanding a society based on beauty and creativity; while The Rakes push the boundaries of human behaviour to the limits with magic, sexuality, drugs and anarchy. Returning from his failed expedition to find the source of the Nile, explorer, linguist, scholar and swordsman Sir Richard Francis Burton finds himself sucked into the perilous depths of this moral and ethical vacuum when the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, employs him as 'King's Spy.' His first mission: to investigate the sexual assaults committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack; to find out why chimney sweeps are being kidnapped by half-man, half-dog creatures; and to discover the whereabouts of his badly injured former friend, John Hanning Speke. Accompanied by the diminutive and pain-loving poet, Algernon Swinburne, Burton's investigations lead him back to one of the defining events of the age: the brutal assassination of Queen Victoria in 1840; and the terrifying possibility that the world he inhabits shouldn't exist at all.

Quite frankly this novel turned out to be one of the best books it's been my pleasure to read in a very long time. For his debut novel Hodder takes that heaviest-weight of 19th century adventurers, Richard Burton, partners him with an obscure and largely unsung poet, Algernon Swinburne, and weaves them into a riveting romp through an irrevocably altered Victorian (now Albertian) period. The catalyst for this change and the unorthodox partnership is the mysterious Spring-Heeled Jack whose mythos has been seemlessly interwoven into the narrative.

Burton is a dynamo of energy and it's surprising that he has not been utilised more in fiction of this kind in the past. His real life adventures are audition enough to make his adoption of his role in the narrative utterly plausible. Swinburne's very obscurity for the reader (or at least this reader) allows him the opportunity to become anything Hodder desires of him.
The partnership are assigned a new role of secret investigators for the King in this brave new world of rampant technological and biological advances. Some of which are maybe a little too major for the sort of timelines hinted at but it all goes to serve the tale so I don't really care too much.

As a villain Jack offers much and the seamless way in which Hodder has woven the folktales surrounding this Victorian enigma into the story is an absolute joy. His presence augmented by the maniacal villainy of some other familiar historical faces whose fates, like Burton and Swinburne, have been irrevocably changed by this interloper.

As I said earlier, it's been a while since I enjoyed a book as much as this and that this is a debut novel is nothing short of astonishing. The recommendation on the front from Michael Moorcock (saying pretty much the same as I did in that last sentence) is very apt as it is he that is most brought to mind in Hodder's writing, the characters almost ooze a Moorcockian presence and solidity that enables them to utterly exist within the storyworld no matter how deranged. This is Hodder's baby though and he does have a voice that is very much his own and is both engaging and compulsive. He takes no shortcuts and never leaves the the reader to flounder in unnecessary world-building, wool gathering or naval gazing. The plot is tight, the characters well rounded and engaging and the setting is one I wish to visit again and again.

It's my understanding that the follow up (called, I believe, 'The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man') is on it's way and I for one cannot wait.

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