A Rollercoaster Ride
The format of Letters Between Gentlemen by Professor Elemental and Nimue Brown is presented as an exchange of letters and notes. The main correspondents are detective Algernon Spoon and Professor Elemental. Others contribute as well, such as the scatter-brained Horatio Plunkett and his sister Maude. The writers also include secret admirers, victims of Professor Elemental’s madcap inventions, as well as a nest of seditious mice, to name a few.
Algernon Spoon is investigating some suspicious activities involving Professor Elemental and Horatio Plunkett. Don’t expect the narrative flow to take you gently from A to B. Instead, prepare to be swept along by torrential rapids which will take you from A to Z in a manic dash to the surprising revelations at the end.
Note to self: Do NOT get started on the goats.
As I started reading, I was heartily amused by many of the side-plots. If they hadn’t progressed any farther, I still would have been content if because they were gloriously absurd. However, as I progressed many of the story-lines intertwined to form a multi-layered narrative whole. It left me in awe of the storytelling skills on display.
The story was also greatly enhanced by the gorgeous illustrations provided by Tom Brown, who captured the essence of his subject matter well.
Some reviewers have drawn comparisons with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. I can understand why because a lot of Discworld elements are in place. For one, there’s a single voice of calm sanity amidst the merry mayhem. During the course of the story, Algernon Spoon has to hazard a furious tornado of distractions, plots and subterfuges, secrets within secrets, incidental murders, and pure absurdity. Despite all this, Spoon remains as cool as a cucumber. He remains persistently on track of the case he’s investigating. By the time the story hints that Spoon might be harbouring a deep secret himself, the reader will forgive. By now, they’re sympathetic to Spoon, and dependent on that one stable rock offering support in the midst of the Bedlamesque whirlwind of the plot.
Steampunk elements have their rightful place in this story, especially in the form of ingenious inventions. However, they don’t simply chug along gently in the background. Instead, they could come plunging from the sky, crashing through the walls, exploding, imploding, or otherwise inconveniencing innocent bystanders.
In the Footsteps of William Kotzwinkle
I reckon that Letters Between Gentlemen surpasses Pratchett in some ways. The voice of Professor Elemental especially is reminiscent of that ultimate master of the absurd: William Kotzwinkle. This work and Kotzwinkle’s novels The Fan Man, Doctor Rat, and The Midnight Examiner, all share one trait: the single-minded determination of their protagonists. They relentlessly pursue their goals, regardless of the world around them being less than helpful. From that perspective, sometimes Professor Elemental’s cool cucumberism is on a par with that of Algernon Spoon. Though it is less consistent when the Professor is on a gin-diet, in disagreement with his ape-servant Geoffrey, and being blackmailed by mice. He’s also often frustrated by lesser minds who fail to properly understand and appreciate his genius.
Another aspect which Kotzwinkle’s Doctor Rat and Letters Between Gentlemen share is the body count. Much of this is due to rampant cruelty towards animals, brought in such exaggeration that it’s simply hilarious in both books, whilst at the same time forming a reminder of the manner in which mankind views – and treats – other living beings on our planet.
Letters Between Gentlemen, at least, doesn’t discriminate between mankind and the animal kingdom. Humans within any kind of proximity to Professor Elemental have as much chance of surviving as animals…
…and the odds aren’t favourable.
It is here that the aforementioned steadfastness of Algernon Spoon is reassuring in this fickle world where mass murder could be skulking just around the corner. One doesn’t even dare contemplate average life expectancy in Letters Between Gentlemen. Not with the likes of Professor Elemental on the loose, free to inflict random acceptable collateral damage in the name of scientific progress. (All the more troubling is that Professor Elemental only ranks eighth in the top list of lethal scientists.) I suspect that his ranking would improve if his invention of exploding children’s toys ever becomes a hit in the pre-Christmas shopping season.
There is a subtle macabre parody in the casual mention of fatalities. It’s appropriate, living as we are today in the shadow of many potential man-made disasters that we mostly don’t care to contemplate. Who wants to know about the tons of toxic material hurtling through the night on a local rail network, capable of wiping out a small city? Such a notion becomes much more amusing if Professor Elemental were to send a rickety old steam train across the country carrying two hundred rabid and ravenous grizzly bears to a party at an orphanage.
P.S. I made the bit about the train full of bears up myself.
P.S.S. Please don’t tell Professor Elemental, it might give him ideas.
At any rate, I experienced guilty pleasure in being unable NOT to laugh at a series of entirely needless, and gruesome, bloodbaths.
Note to self: Never, ever read this book in a public space again. If you do, and are asked why you are laughing so loudly, don’t offer “A passenger flight just crashed into the river and everybody died” as an answer.
The best news of all is that you are really getting a good deal for your money. This book is eminently re-readable, filled with references, allusions, and subtle layers, all of which will guarantee each reading to offer something new. Letters Between Gentlemen is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anybody with an interest in Steampunk or British humour at its finest.
Nils Nisse Visser writes contemporary fantasy, contemporary and historical fiction, historical fantasy and Steampunk stories. He has published seven novels/novellas, and contributed stories to four anthologies. This includes two award-winning WriterPunk Press anthologies, as well as non-fictional magazine work. His first Steampunk book, Amster Damned, has been positively received by critics, who have encouraged him to continue exploring the genre. http://www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk