Mark Gatiss' splendid second book in his Lucifer Box trilogy catches up with our eponymous hero twenty years after the Edwardian adventures of `The Vesuvius Club'.
Lucifer is now middle aged and feeling under threat from a new generation of secret agents. He's still beautiful and his body lean (as he informs the reader from time to time) but there is now a subtle underlying wariness and vulnerability to Box, which somehow matches the late 1920s historical setting & the darker plotline.
The story opens with Lucifer's latest mission, a hit on a New York gangster, in a cold, wintry 1920s New York. He receives unrequested help in this matter from Percy Flarge, one of the young challengers to Box's supreme position as `the best'.
It is amid this art deco New York setting that Box is assigned to observe the activities of F.A.U.S.T fascist leader Olympus Mons & find out about the possible threat he and his band of Amber Shirts may pose.
That threat becomes terrifyingly clear as the brilliantly fast paced and exciting adventure develops. Mons is a fascist Satanist who will stop at nothing to harness the forces of darkness & have the Devil himself at his side in his bid for world power!
`The Devil in Amber' makes you reel at the inventiveness on display - a thrilling plot that is dynamic and gripping, it will leave you breathless as it builds to its dramatic conclusion.
Mark Gatiss' brilliant use of language helps create such tension and atmosphere as well providing an unerringly convincing historical setting. His writing is also effortlessly witty - this book appeals on so many different levels.
The comic tone in `The Devil in Amber' is much darker than `The Vesuvius Club'. This is partly due to the plot, which takes in the rise of Fascism, satanic threats and the spectre of the Devil.
There is however also a melancholic undercurrent which suffuses the whole book too. Lucifer is one of the generation who survived the First World War & there are subtle expressions of vulnerability, mortality and sad, bitter memories - none more so than when Box pays a solitary visit to a lonely war memorial in the unforgiving cold of the Swiss countryside.
This is reflected in the terser, colder language which skilfully matches & plays with the popular adventure genre of the late 1920s and 1930s period.
There is light to balance the shade. Lucifer Box's first person narration provides one liners which drip from his lips with ease, as if he were casually tapping ash from a lit cigarette. Not only are they extremely funny but they encapsulate his personality wonderfully.
Lucifer has a very memorable adversary in Olympus Mons. The descriptions of Mons' Hitlerian rages are fantastic. You really do feel you are in the presence of a psychotic, unhinged megalomaniac.
I also have to mention, in complete contrast to the demonic Mons, the wonderful Mrs Croup, who comes to Lucifer's aid. An aged, sex starved Australian who is obsessed with real life murders & collects newspaper cuttings on them, she is a superb comic grotesque, whose sayings made me laugh out loud.
The quality of `The Devil in Amber' is too damn good to be just an entertaining pastiche of a Boy's Own adventure of the period. Both of Mark's Lucifer Box books are fantastic reads in their own right & with the narrative arcs, background stories and attention to detail that The League of Gentlemen have always provided, we can only hope for many further Lucifer Box stories to come.