Michael Joseph, 448pp. £12.99
PASTICHE OR QUASI-PASTICHE Victorian fiction has been in vogue for some time – quasi-pastiche because the novels belonging to the genre lack the moral seriousness of the great Victorians. They owe more to Wilkie Collins (though perhaps not to the best of his work), Bulwer-Lytton and Hall Caine than to Dickens, Thackeray or Trollope.
This debut novel by Tony Pollard, director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University, is a nice example of the genre, even if Pollard hasn't troubled himself to sound a 19th-century note in his dialogue. This is perhaps just as well. Imitation Victorian dialogue is usually almost as unconvincing as imitation Elizabethan, even if not so intolerable; nothing perhaps could be.
The novel is a high-spirited romp, with a complicated and utterly improbable plot, impossible to summarise in a brief review. It twists and turns like a journey through a maze, and if the reader follows it to the centre, he will have displayed considerable stamina. Still, "what is the plot for but to bring in fine things?", and there are plenty of fine things here to amuse the reader.
It begins with a nod – homage, if you prefer – to Dickens: as in Our Mutual Friend, a waterman on the Thames fishes up a body. It's a young woman, and her body has been cut open and her organs removed. She is not the first victim to have been found in this state, and there will, naturally, be others.
A police inspector, not far removed from Collins's Sergeant Cuff, consults the novel's narrator, Dr George Phillips, a young surgeon at St Thomas's Hospital. Phillips, an ingenuous and resourceful young man, has already been befriended by the great engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, then engaged on the building of his most ambitious ship, the Great Eastern.
Brunel displays an intense interest in what Phillips can tell him about the mechanism and workings of the heart. This will seem immediately more sinister to readers who make connections with the bodies fished from the Thames than it does at first to Dr Phillips. But of course it's necessary in this sort of novel that the narrator should be a bit of an innocent, at least in the beginning.
Brunel introduces our narrator to the Lazarus Club, the name of which should set alarm bells ringing. This is apparently a sort of alternative Royal Society, but less stuffy, more free-ranging and daring in its intellectual curiosity than that pillar of the scientific establishment. The list of its members, including Charles Darwin and Charles Babbage (pioneer of the computer), read like a roll call of the mid-Victorian intelligentsia. (Dickens, Phillips is told, attended one of the club's meetings.)
Since Florence Nightingale also turns up at St Thomas's, to the disgruntlement of the hospital's chief, Sir Benjamin Brodie, and develops a relationship with Phillips, which however stops modestly short of physical expression, there are times when the novel recalls the Max Beerbohm character, name of Brown, who wrote a blank verse tragedy, "Savonarola", in which every well-known character of the Italian Renaissance made an appearance.
Murder, skullduggery and other dark doings abound. Novels of this type require gusto if they are to succeed, and there is certainly no lack of gusto here. The villains are suitably villainous, ingenious and ruthless, the virtuous suitably brave, the narrator suitably dogged and agreeably often in danger, both from the police and the villains.
No wonder Phillips lies on his bed "pondering my fate. Which was it to be? Loss of position; struck off as a doctor; thrown into prison or even lynched by the mob – the possibilities seemed endless". This is splendid stuff. No wonder that we find that hands are "blood-soaked" and a murderer can stand "steady as a monument, watching me through stone-cold eyes".
In short, this novel is a fine example of what Maurice Bowra called "the Higher Bogus". It's full of intellectual quirks, lively speculation, and agreeable invention. I scarcely believed a word of it, but found it highly enjoyable.