Evil Dead 2, Godfather 2, The Empire Strikes Back ... and now Johannes Cabal the Detective.
Sequels that go one louder than the original.
The first volume, "Johannes Cabal the Necromancer", is pretty good, but I haven't enjoyed reading a book as much as "Johannes Cabal the Detective" in what seems like a very long time.
I think it's incredibly difficult to hit the right tone with a cod-historical story, which is one of the problems in the previous book, but everything from style to content and pace is absolutely on the mark in "Johannes Cabal the Detective" from the very first page. I gather author Jonathan L Howard is relatively well-known for writing the narrative content of video games, which I've never had the hand-to-eye co-ordination or patience to play. Wherever he's been sharpening the skills for lean, clear prose, good dialogue and page-turning story momentum it all comes to fruition here. I wouldn't be surprised if what follows is a graduation to big-money script-writing - and why not, if Jonathan Ross's wife can do it - because everything is informed by a very cinematic sensibility.
The plot is a neat twist on a conventional Agatha Christie murder mystery, although possibly more the movie adaptations than the original novels. For reasons set up in a funny and action-packed preamble our hero is on the run from a hostile government, ironically disguised as one of their low-level civil servants. He tries to escape on a slow-moving airship cruiser, joined by a standard Christie passenger-list of ex-officers, genteel businesspeople, retired industrialists, and a couple of younger men and women of middle and upper class. Murders happen, both in flight and when the ship makes a port of call, people are dangled off various bits of the airship, plots are exposed and sundry characters are revealed to be what not they originally seemed.
The basic story framework is steampunk, although to his credit Jonathan L Howard avoids the genre's more ridiculous and literally steam-driven extremes. It's set in a broadly Victorian or Edwardian era, although as with the first book there's also a strong hint of England in the 1950s. Improbably advanced technology exists, and key elements like the ley-line driven anti-gravity airships and the insect-originated "entomopter" light aircraft are explained in playful 50s-era Eagle comic style articles with cutwaway diagrams.
The nods to Eagle are joined with a much more explicit homage to the template for Johannes Cabal's character and "day job", Jeffery Combs's performance as antihero Herbert West in the Re-Animator movies. Some reviewers don't like the Cabal character because he's rude, anti-social and frequently homicidal. All I can say is, I'm sorry, because that means you won't ever enjoy the Re-Animator movies either. For everyone else able to appreciate the joke, Cabal is a loveably arrogant and single-minded agent of chaos motivated by a desire to do something ultimately good and make death redundant. He's just too busy following his own sense of the right thing to do - which most often seems to mean save his own skin - to wait for the rest of the world's moral framework to catch up. I know it's risky these days to attach Mel Gibson's name to anything, but it's exactly what made the title character work so well in the second Mad Max movie.
Just to be clear, drawing connections to other characters I've been fond of for years is my idea of high praise indeed.
Pacing is one of the great indefinables of good genre writing, like lean and transparent prose and the ability to follow the trope where appropriate and step back when it's not. I can't over-state how well-paced and well-written this book is. Any unoriginal ideas are used knowingly, with a deft polish and fresh spin. The "murder cruise" plot is simple, elegant and brilliant. The sequences on the ground in deftly-sketched period movie versions of Germany and Italy are appropriately comic, exciting and touching. The moral and non-specific sexual tension between Johannes Cabal and sometime sidekick, sometime nemesis Leonie Barrow sparkles like early Moonlighting or the episodes of the Rockford Files with a really good part for Stuart Margolin as Angel. Yes, I know they're both guys, it's a relationship thing not a sex thing.
It's probably possible to over-praise this novel, but honestly I don't think I've done it yet - it really is that good.