Monday 26 July 2010

Johannes Cabal the Detective, Jonathan L. Howard

Count Marechal would see the Mirkarvian empire restored, but the emperor died three hours ago – before a crucial speech could be given. Thus Johannes Cabal escapes execution for necromancy (and related book theft), but the episode ends badly, and Cabal escapes on an aeroship – the Princess Hortense, on her maiden cruise – in the guise of Herr Gerhard Meissner, docket clerk first class, Department of Administrative Coordination. There are murders; Cabal investigates.

This was very enjoyable. Both narrator and character are quietly funny, and there's a touch of the Stainless Steel Rat about Johannes, both in his humour and his disdain for the law (and at one point it is said of him that you should "set a monster to catch a monster"), though he does not share his science fictional counterpart's regard for human life – having defeated an enemy, he thinks it best to kill them while they are "handy and vulnerable".

Nor does he share the Rat's interest in women. Indeed, he "usually carried a faint scent of formaldehyde around with him, which had the effect of depressing any amorous intent of any woman with a working nose", so the attention he attracts from femmes fatales during the voyage (enforced absence from his laboratory having done much for his odour) comes as a surprise and a challenge.

There are also echoes of Keith Laumer's Retief tales: Cabal is a capable man on a world of militaristic idiots, sadists and popinjays, a world with one foot stuck in the 19th century. Unlike Retief, Cabal has a capable, intelligent woman to deal with: Leonie Barrow, a criminologist from his past with the uncanny, infuriating ability to awaken his "feelings" and "conscience". Their uneasy unfriendship provides many of the novel's best moments.

Special mention must go to the wonderful cover, a striking piece of art and design by Michael Windsor. The back cover reproduces the first three paragraphs of the novel, showing a classy and I think justified confidence in the author's writing, which is sparky, amusing and dramatic.

The last thirty pages of the book offer a bonus feature: "The Tomb of Umtak Ktharl", an entertaining novella which succeeds the events of the novel.

Johannes Cabal the Detective, Jonathan L. Howard, Headline, hb, 380pp.

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