After many trips to library book sales and used book stores, I’ve amassed quite a substantial library, shelves of books that I have only vague memories of having picked up, shelves of books I’ve never even cracked open. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to concentrate on my backlog rather than continue bringing books home from the library. I, er, haven’t been too successful on that count. Hey, awesome books keep coming out and I keep requesting them from the library while my own collections continue to keep collecting dust. For this reason, I’ve been heading into the room where I’ve stowed my to-read shelves and grabbing a few random ones off the shelf to get through. This will be a regular new segment of Reading Rainstorm as I try to tackle a little of the stuff I’ve amassed. For the first installment, I pulled down a couple of short, goofy novels I’d picked up somewhere years before from the Lucifer Box series.
The novels are light but self indulgent pulp pastiches of genre literature, following the escapes of the debauched and decadent Lucifer Box, celebrated painter by day, secret agent for His Majesty’s Crown by night (and bisexual cad at all times!). Self described as a “piece of fluff,” a fairly apt description, the series is written by English actor and writer Mark Gatiss, known outside the UK mostly for his work on the BBC show Sherlock and his role as Mycroft Holmes. The sensibilities shown in his media work are definitely present in Box’s absurd adventures as well. The Vesuvius Club and the Devil in Amber are appropriately witty and sexy parodies of spy capers and Sherlockian shenanigans, particularly if you have a taste running towards the Anglophilic.
The Vesuvius Club follows a young Box in his Edwardian age prime, Wildean and debonair, as quick with a cutting remark as with his pistol. While his role as painter affords him private lessons with a intriguingly independent lady, the mysterious murders of Britain’s finest geologists forces him to fly to Naples to confront a secret society bent on conquest (and the beguiling Charlie Jackpot). The Devil in Amber takes a slightly aged Box to the New York of the 1920s, where he quickly butts heads with a would-be fascist leader with plans to rule the world by summoning Lucifer (the Biblical one, not the protagonist) himself. Can his superiors at the Royal Academy know more than they are letting on? In other words, standard genre stuff, written smoothly. It’s also nice to see a non-binary played so frankly and Box is definitely a character to root for in spite of his arrogant self-aggrandizing.
The plots of either of the novels are mere atmosphere to Box’s encounters, romantic or antagonistic, with their casts of various comedic, dastardly, and bizarre characters, each with a more improbable and apt name than the next (Mrs. Midsomer Knight, Cretaceous Unmann, Olympus Mons, to name a few.) Each chapter brings on a new death defying set piece, whether a carriage chase through London cemeteries, midnight chases through the tunnels of Pompeii, or fights on Swiss cable cars, Box rarely has time to catch his breath, except in the bed of his next paramour. Despite his bravery and derring do, most of his scrapes are solved by convenient deus ex machinas. One gets the feeling that the breezy characterizations, random double crosses, and secret reveals are smiling homages to the tawdry, page turning excesses of pulp, perfectly apropos for such a piece of fluff. Still, it can be a bit forgettable, and I’m not sure if I enjoyed the ride quite enough to seek out Box’s last adventure, The Black Butterfly.
3 Stars Each