The Vesuvius Club: A Lucifer Box Novel by Mark Gatiss
Lucifer Box, the hero of the Vesuvius Club, is a portraitist, gentleman and secret agent, a kind of Edwardian James Bond with a generous helping of Sherlock Holmes thrown in for good measure. It’s a cracking romp presented in true Strand magazine style with an appropriately evocative cover and illustrations throughout. Though a self-declared “bit of fluff” the novel has all the necessary elements that fans of such fiction will be hoping for: a suitably convoluted plot involving volcanoes and kidnapped scientists and lashings of pleasing period references. However though it succeeds on a number of levels, the concept promises a lot more than it delivers, which is a shame as Gatiss’ great affection for the literature he is parodying is evident throughout.
An artist and assassin, Box lives at Number 9 Downing Street because “somebody has to.” The London scenes are all very jolly, full of society balls and hansom cab chases and the like, but thing go off the boil when the story shifts to Naples. Gatiss has previously published a series of Doctor Who novels and a few sci-fi elements creep into the latter stages of the narrative – like the helmeted guards who patrol the villain’s lair and are impervious to pain. Though Holmes’ creator had a similar fondness for the fantastical it’s still rather jarring. Having established such a complex and knotty plot it proves difficult to pull it all together; he lacks Conan Doyle’s capacity for concision and the closing chapters get bogged down in exposition and an over-long finale, too many scenes of chase and escape that don’t really thrill as they should. Though, having said that, he wraps things up wonderfully with a very neat and satisfying epilogue that sees him recapturing many of the books more successful elements.
One of the main reasons why Sherlock Holmes is such an enduring character is his companionship with Dr Watson. Their interaction and the little snippets of their life together at 221B Baker Street were an essential part of Conan Doyle’s formula, humanising his hero, but though Gatiss understands this, he introduces Box’s sidekick, Charlie Jackpot, at too late a stage in the narrative. The idea of Box employing a former rent boy as his valet is one of the story’s most inspired touches. Even with a fluffy pastiche like this there needs to be some kind of emotional hook to make it compelling, and by bringing a sexual dynamic to the hero-sidekick relationship Gatiss is able to give an original twist to his material and sow the seeds for a potentially engaging partnership. But the boy does not arrive on the scene until midway through the novel when the action switches to Italy.
As you would expect from a member of the magnificent League of Gentlemen, Gatiss is a very funny writer, particularly adept at puns and character names – one of Box’s would be conquests (for he has an equally assured touch with the ladies) is a Miss Bella Pok. And he obviously has a deep fondness and knowledge of the fiction of the period. Holmes’ fans will take pleasure in spotting the references to The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger and The Adventure of The Devil’s Foot amongst many others. And all the little details: the hailing of broughams, the brandishing of dark lanterns and the sporting of toppers. The adjective-heavy prose is difficult to sustain however and there’s always a sense that plot is battling it out with style for narrative precedence.
The Vesuvius Club is the first part of a planned trilogy taking the character through different periods, into the 1920s and the 1930s and onwards through the 20th century. Gatiss’ “bit of fluff” may be fan fiction, but its superior fan fiction, a rather guilty pleasure; there’s enough invention here to fully merit development, and a second instalment would certainly be welcome. There’s also talk of the book being turned into a graphic novel and this may well prove to be the best format for this particular adventure.