Sunday, 22 March 2015

The Silent Thunder Caper

Mark Hodder The Silent Thunder Caper (2014)
Just to get it out of the way, I had some initial doubts about this one. Aside from my being pretty much a stranger to detective fiction in general, the somewhat cartoony cover just didn't inspire confidence, which I realise is probably a facile observation but it would be stupid to deny that cover art has no influence on my initial impression of a novel. Happily, holding a physical copy in my hand dispels all doubts, it being a pleasantly chunky doorstop of a hardback, beautifully put together and reminding me of the Dean & Son hardback children's editions of Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island and other classics my grandfather used to buy for me as a child in a sadly premature effort to introduce me to culture; and the cover works very nicely out here in the physical universe, and in a way which it doesn't on a screen for some peculiar reason.

As for detective fiction and the possibility of me being out of my depth, I dipped a toe into an anthology of Sexton Blake material some months back, most of which I enjoyed, so this isn't entirely unfamiliar territory, and not least because it's written by Mark Hodder - he who once so cruelly poured admittedly eloquent and descriptive scorn upon my overachieving sphincter back during our college days, despite my defence of it having been a bad pint, or something.

Anyway, down to business: Sexton Blake as some readers may already know is the star of a long running detective serial of over a hundred's years vintage, now under the wing of Obverse Books. Roughly speaking, he's the Sherlock Holmes who isn't afraid of a punch-up, but the more you read, the more he begins to feel very much his own distinct character. Mark Hodder, having been a fan of Blake for a long time and curator of Blakiana, the dedicated website, was a great choice as author to the first of what will hopefully be a long-running series. Even aside from the sort of attention to detail he brings to the regular cast of Blake, Tinker, Mrs. Bardell and others, his Burton & Swinburne novels have already shown him to be a thorough and expressive hand when it comes to period pieces of this kind. The Silent Thunder Caper strikes a fine balance, perfectly evoking the atmosphere of a time in which even the humble telephone was relatively new-fangled, achieving nostalgic effect without parody, and somehow avoiding any suggestion of affectation - the sort of thing you get when a nineteen-year old reads himself some Lovecraft and decides to have a go. Most surprising of all - at least to me - is how happily The Silent Thunder Caper sits in two places at once, constituting both solid Blake and a great Mark Hodder novel with the sort of political convolutions, elaborate plotting, and earthy humour which have served the Burton & Swinburne books so well. As ever, Hodder delivers an accomplished and thoroughly classy narrative, and anyone who has ever enjoyed his superior pedigree steampunk will find a lot to love here.

If not for the sake of comparison but nevertheless serving as such, this hardback also reproduces G.H. Teed's The Wireless-Telephone Clue from an issue of Union Jack first printed in 1922, an earlier Blake story serving as introduction for some of the characters of The Silent Thunder Caper. Teed seems to have been generally acknowledged as one of the best Sexton Blake authors, and his tale sits quite comfortable alongside Mark Hodder's continuation as both complement and contrast with a narrative which could probably have been condensed to a couple of pages in terms of incident, yet remains engrossing for a hundred or more.

I'm pleased and genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed this.

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