Fiction Review: Doktor Glass

BY THOMAS BRENNAN
Publisher: Ace Trade (2012)
Reviewed by Cheyenne Kam

9780425258170_p0_v2_s260x420The main concept of this novel is something from a child’s fantasy: the “Span”, a bridge stretching from Liverpool in England to New York City in the U.S., built just as the 20th century is getting underway. Armies of workers have sunk pitons into the Atlantic, and designers have worked years to make sure the Span will stand, providing a link across the globe for new ‘atomic’ powered trains. The cost has been great, in money, time, and lives; a camp of dispossessed families and workers has grown up around the docks, awaiting the anticipated opening of the bridge and their chance to buy steerage tickets to America, as well as constantly hectoring the company who built it to compensate them for the loss of their husbands and fathers. It’s a powerful image, and the author doesn’t skimp on the details.

The rest of the novel continues the trend for steampunk realism: steam-powered cars, the hustle and bustle of the Victorian-era Met police station, crippled Boer War veterans trying to get by in the streets. It’s a fascinating world, punctuated by society balls with new electric lights, spiritualists, and rumors of the “Jar Boys” – scam artists claiming they are willing to capture the soul of a dying person with their new scientific device, and that in return for money there is the assurance of resurrection for the dearly departed. In this London, however, there is the possibility that this scam is all too real, thanks to the mysterious and much-feared Doktor Glass.

If only all this detail and historical authenticity had carried over to the characterization. Sadly, our protagonist, Inspector Matthew Langton, occasionally seems to be criminally naive for the hero of a mystery novel. He’s dealing with nightmares and insomnia due to the recent death of his wife, as well as a rather gruesome murder on the docks, but he pluckily tries to find who’s responsible–only to have every lead killed off as he plods along. He’s likable, and maybe he’s just at the disadvantage of not being the reader, but I know I spotted our villains from their first appearances. The other characters were also believable and engaging, but not gripping. Unfortunately, Doktor Glass did not live up to his billing as a super-villain, and for all the build-up, the ending is something of a let-down. The loose ends are neatly tied up, but I was left wondering if I still cared.

There’s the possibility that Matthew was missing some clues because of class distinctions which keep him from asking useful questions, but it seems a cheap way to keep him from finding the culprits. A Samuel Vimes (a la Discworld) or Sam Spade would never have been thwarted by this. There are noir elements to this novel, but our hero’s persistent naivete tends to obscure them. Maybe Inspector Langton and the author were trying too hard to do too many things at once: write social commentary, science-fantasy, and cops-and-spies action at the same time. Throwing in a mystery plot might have stretched this novel just a little too thin to reach the end with enough weight to carry it.

If you grow impatient with slow pacing and tangents away from the crime, you should probably go back to The Big Sleep. But If you want to read great world-building and good action, and you don’t particularly care about mystery plots, this is a good read.

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