Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Somnambulist: Review

[Sits. Blinks. Shakes head.] 

Last night, at midnight (how appropriate), I completed the final scheduled book for the R.I.P. VII event--The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes.  Now I need to write up a review.  Um. Okay.  [Blinks some more.] 

Yeah.  It's one of those books.  The kind where you finish and you just don't know what to say.  The only thing that really occurs right off the bat is: Man, that was one weird little book.  And I do mean weird.  But I guess weird is good when you're working on a book for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril.  Did I like it?  I don't know. Yes and no.  Maybe.  I like the writing--Jonathan Barnes has a grasp of narration that pulls you from the very beginning:

Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and wilfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it.

Yet I cannot be held wholly accountable for its failings. I have good reason for presenting you with so sensational and unlikely an account.

It is all true.

Stop reading after that.  Just try it.  I couldn' eyes strayed down the page, eager to find out what came next.  And even when I was confused beyond belief, I just couldn't stop.  A writer that can induce that kind of compulsive reading in his audience has got something.  Even when he has a detective that makes you wonder how he got such an impressive reputation.  'Cause impressive Edward Moon ain't.  

But let's take this from the top and see if I can make some sense out of things while I try to tell you about them.  Edward Moon is an illusionist (for lack of a better word) of some sort.  For years he had been the toast of Victorian society--amazing and confounding everyone up to and including minor royals.  His act includes a giant of a man--the Somnambulist.  A man who never speaks, whose face is impassive--even when stabbed repeatedly with sharp knives.  And who never bleeds no matter where he's stabbed.  But Moon's act never changes, and society has begun to search for other entertainments. 

To keep himself from boredom, Moon has involved himself in various criminal cases.  We're given a laundry list of earlier crimes (a la Sherlock Holmes rattling off his unpublished cases) and meant to believe that he's been brilliant at unraveling them.  Despite the fact that the Clapham case keeps getting mentioned as though it wasn't exactly a success. 

When the story opens Moon is getting bored again and, what a happy coincidence, things are getting weird in London.  A disreputable actor is killed by some sort of creature that can climb up walls.  This is followed by a similar murder.  The theatre where Moon performs (and lives) is burnt to the ground.  A strange man who claims to live backwards in time keeps popping in and out of Moon's life.  A clairvoyant madam gives warning that some sort of secret society is going to take over London in about a week.  There are all sorts of creepy people wandering about.  Can Moon figure it out and stop the society from destroying London civilization?

Well...can he?  Most of the novel, it doesn't seem like he's gonna be too successful at that.  He runs round in circles, demanding answers from people who refuse to cooperate and finding out just enough to move the story along.  Barely.  And when he finally does get to the bottom of things the reader (at least this reader) is left scratching her head and wondering, "What the heck?" and "Seriously? That's what it was all about?"

The two redeeming bits for me:  

The narrator.  He made the book for least until the big reveal at the end.  I can't tell you much about that or I'll spoil the story.  But let's just say that he gets WAY too smug once the reveal is over.

The Prefects.  Two for-hire killers who are modeled on British public school boys.  Sure, they're quite evil, but it's all in good fun.  What ho?

Okay.  That's it.  Sorry, I can't give you a more indepth review than that....but I'm still blinking and shaking my head.  If I think of something more profound, I'll come back and let you know.  For now--three stars.  Middle of the road kind of read.

****You know, I've thought this over a bit.  This book reminds me of the Vincent Price revenge movies...The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theatre of Blood, etc.  But I think Price played it much better than Barnes wrote it.  It needs that "almost too far over the top" feel to it that works better visually than it does on paper.  

There's something oddly comforting about discovering all one's worst suspicions to be true. [Edward Moon, p. 119)

EM: In the past few days I've seen things I know shouldn't be true, things against the order of the world. Things that have no place in a rational universe.
S: May I offer some advice? You should do as I do whenever I'm confronted by the weird, by the uncanny, by the unexplained.
EM: What's that?
S: My job.
[Edward Moon; Skimpole, pp. 149-50)


J F Norris said...

Well, I liked it. I think the whole thing is meant to be tongue-in cheek. It has a comic book feel to it and I was reminded of Sax Rohmer an awful lot. Believe it or not, there's a sequel (of sorts) -- The Domino Men.

Bev Hankins said...

John, I know you liked it. And maybe it's the comic book feel that I don't like....I'm not sure. Or maybe (like what I added about VP movies) it's because I didn't think it quite played that element enough (or just right). There were a great many things to like about this....and yet it didn't quite take me where I thought it would or where I thought it seemed to be headed.

I started off loving it. That opening got the hook in my mouth. But when Barnes pulled back on the line, the hook just didn't set.

Anonymous said...

I've been seeing this book around and thinking that I should give it a try. Then, reading your review I realized I *had* read it, back in '09 when it came out. My conclusion: Oddity is tiring when it's the norm.

Ryan said...

I loved the author's vision of London. It was a city I wanted to get lost in. I just wish I could have done so without the overly contrived plot and horrific characters.