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REALJimBob

Fortysomething, photographer slacker, working in IT, living in Greenwich; failed polymath; drinks and eats too much, reads too little...

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack - Mark Hodder [a:Mark Hodder|3222611|Mark Hodder|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1315597718p2/3222611.jpg]'s debut novel, [b:The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack|7293120|The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (Burton & Swinburne, #1)|Mark Hodder|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327931939s/7293120.jpg|8590363], or should that be Spring-Heeled Jack? The front cover says hyphenated, the inside says not. The page headers suggest hyphenated again, but the actual text contradicts. Obviously, this confusion isn't really a big enough deal to spoil my appreciation of the novel, but it's certainly something to ponder while reading. Luckily, the book is engrossing enough that for most of it, thoughts of hyphenation almost totally left my mind. The first in a trilogy, Hodder brings us a tale of mystery in a post-Victorian steampunk world. Something has happened to change history, Queen Victoria has been assassinated, and we're into an Albertian society instead. All the Victorian greats are here, although with their own little twists: Richard Burton (not the actor) is our detective hero, there doesn't seem to be any end to this man's talents – fencing, exploring, speaks dozens of languages, good at dressing up and now special agent for the King; Algy Swinburne is our poet sidekick – daring, over-excitable and an algolagniac (a condition where his body interprets pain as sexual pleasure); Isambard Kingdom Brunel has started a society of Technologists – pushing the advancement of technology with no constraints who have invented steam powered penny farthings and rotorships amongst other things; Florence Nightingale is the leader of the Eugenicists – giving us wolfmen, brain transplants and human-panther hybrids; Charles Darwin is the brains – in fact he has two brains thanks to Florence. There's no useful idea-stone left unturned in this novel, it's all here jammed in together. Along with time-travel, swearing parakeets, a secret union of chimney sweeps and even little Oscar Wilde the newspaper boy is enjoyable (if a little unnecessary maybe bearing in mind how much other stuff is already crammed in this novel).

Burton has been engaged by the King and Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, to investigate the wolfmen sightings (they are abducting the chimney sweeps) in the east-end as a sort of a detective without portfolio. After suffering a confusing attack by Spring-Heeled Jack himself the two cases eventually (and obviously) become one. The level of research throughout this novel just adds to the enjoyment – details from all the characters 'real' lives are incorporated – even the period bogeyman, Spring-Heeled Jack, is built into the story. Each character has layers built over the top of that reality as they adapt to the new timeline. The Libertines, Rakes, Technologists and Eugenicists all spring forth from one changed event in the past and carve their way into the new future.

The only minor flaws were some awkward chapter transitions. Chapter 13 didn't make sense to me immediately as it appeared to jolt back in time and cover the same ground as the previous chapter. Initially I thought they'd printed the chapters in the wrong order, but after forging on and some frantic page-flipping-back I realised that it was a slightly awkwardly done literary device. Half way through the book, the point-of-view completely switches to that of the eponymous villain Spring-Heeled Jack himself in Part Two. We find out who he is, where he came from and what he's trying to achieve. Initially it felt a little forced, an attempt to avoid the cliched exposition from the villain to the hero (or victim) just before he's beaten, that detective fiction so often suffers from. I wasn't sure about it at first, but actually it made sense as there's just too much story for Jack to get through any other way and provides a much more sympathetic insight into Jack that exposition ever could.

The book was an unexpected gift for Christmas last year from the missus, bought on the basis of one of those little bookshop recommendation cards. Proof, if it were needed, that bookshops do have a use and sometimes those unexpected recommendations can turn out to be gems.