The Short Version: A collection of tales spanning the length of George Mann’s alternate steampunk universe – including a case featuring Templeton Black, several lovely Christmas tales, the firm establishment of Peter Rutherford as successor to our daring heroes, and even a few appearances from the great detective himself…
The Review: I am a huge supporter of what I’ve recently come to call “unified-world theory”. This states that authors of fiction can – and perhaps automatically, unless proven otherwise, do – consider their entire canon to be extant in the same universe. The best example of this would be the works of Stephen King – off-hand mentions to Derry, to a new Mike Noonan novel, not to mention the swirling central vortex of The Dark Tower series – but it has existed for a long time now. The works of Bret Easton Ellis & Jay McInerney are cross-pollinated, King’s sons are adding their works to the King-verse while looping other people in retroactively, and Neil Gaiman does a bit of it as well – and if you really want to go back, just think about the fact that John Falstaff shows up in The Merry Wives of Windsor. George Mann is another author whose love for so-called “Easter Eggs” has blossomed in all of his various writings – and I, for one, love it. I love it so much.
This collection is full of delightful stories – not a single one, to my mind, is a misfire. This is rare, even for the best short story writers and I wonder if it is because these tales were almost all previously published in various places. There wasn’t the drive to “write a book of short stories” but rather the opportunity to collect stories presented itself and Mann took it with gusto. He even lays out, at the back of the book, a timeline and a delightful paragraph-for-each explanation of where the stories came from and why they exist. All in all, this is the sort of book where you can feel the author’s joy and excitement practically bubbling out of the pages. Something like that is infectious, to say the least.
I won’t speak too much to some of the more interesting stories in the collection, as I have questions that I’ll hopefully be putting to Mr. Mann in an interview in the coming weeks that might prove a better place to explore these issues… but Mann has really, truly, created his own version of our world for this series (stretching from N&H through the Ghost novels – of which I do hope there will be more…) but also takes care to ground it in the world that we know. The best “alternate realities” are full of touchstones to our own, like the poster for the 12th season of The West Wing on an episode of Fringe, and Mann’s is no exception. So when a particular story begins, “During the many years in which I served as both a friend and chronicler of Sherlock Holmes…”, it’s hard not to get excited. Similarly, to find out that Mann’s Doctor Who novel features one Professor Angelchrist – who we’ve come to know and love through these stories (especially the lovely last three) – is a joyous surprise.
But alright, enough about how amazing I think the unified-world theory is. The stories, you cry! How are the stories?!
Well, I already said: they’re uniformly excellent. We get some shading on a handful of adventures previously mentioned, including a delightful short tale of Newbury & Bainbridge locked up by the Cabal of the Horned Beast just before The Executioner’s Heart and we finally get a proper introduction to Templeton Black (although not, I’m sad to say, the story of his horrific death). We also meet Lady Arkwell, Hobbes’ Adler after a fashion, in a handful of tales – although she’s often just as much of a shadow in the background as ever before. And then there are a few moments where Mann takes the characters we’ve come to know and love over the course of four books and allows us to get a little closer to them. The Christmas tales, especially, show little nuances of Newbury especially – like the fact that he hosts Christmas with Charles every year and the sight of the tree with presents underneath for his friends… it’s mid-September and I got a thrill of warmth in my heart at the thought of these holiday tales. They’re the Dickensian tradition, updated for the nerd set.
Rating: 5 out of 5. What else can I say? The success of the Newbury & Hobbes series (modest so far but continuing to grow upon each release, I’m happy to say) has freed Mann to really just indulge his imagination – and what an imagination it is. He’s got two series running, spanning the first 35 or so years of the last century, and he’s managed to connect them together into one whole ‘verse. These stories show that he’s as adept with individual moments as he is with big cases and I sincerely hope that the “Volume One” on the cover is the promise of many, many more to come. Even if the N&H series ends after the 6th book, I will always welcome another visit with Newbury, Hobbes, Bainbridge, Angelchrist, Black, Arkwell, and Rutherford in the same way I look forward to new tales of Holmes, Watson, Hudson, Moriarty, Lestrade, and Adler. May Mann’s creations have as prosperous a life.