Sir Richard Francis Burton stands at the crossroads of his life. His career as exotic adventurer, world explorer, and military man is over. His future appears to consist of a content but unexciting marriage and a series of obscure government assignments in foreign ports.
That all changes when Burton’s co-explorer turned rival, John Speke, is mysteriously shot, and Burton is assaulted by a bizarre, lightning-wrapped figure which bounces on two-foot stilts. His mystery assailant remarkably resembles a legendary nocturnal monster known as “Spring Heeled Jack.” And, before vanishing in mid-air, the legend screams an inexplicable message that Burton’s destiny lies elsewhere.
Maybe it does. Instead of an obscure foreign post, Burton receives an unexpected assignment: to serve the King of England as a secret agent. Burton ends his years-long engagement, then recruits his friend, the decadent poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, as his assistant. As the oddly matched pair investigates the near-fatal assault on Speke, Burton finds his path repeatedly crossing that of Spring Heeled Jack. He also uncovers a plot that stretches from the assassination of Queen Victoria, to the scandalous Libertines, the missing scientist Charles Darwin, and a distant continent and century.
If the plot synopsis sounds rather strange, rest assured: it doesn’t begin to capture the wild delights of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. Debut novelist Mark Hodder outrageously reinvents both Victorian England and pulp fiction in the guise of a complicated time-travel novel. While he doesn’t manage to throw in the kitchen sink, Hodder does provide a surfeit of pleasures rarely (if ever) combined before. Mad scientists! Steampunk airships! Discontented Luddites! Crazed time-travelers! Alt.Victorian crime-fighters! Black snow! Sadistic villains! Albino panther-men! Masochistic heroes! Shameless Libertines! Foul-mouthed messenger-parakeets! Secret conspiracies! Sherlockian investigators! Eugenically engineered, spontaneously combusting werewolves! Rioting villagers with torches and pitchforks! Human brains transplanted into apes! To be accurate, there’s only one each of the transplantee ape, Sherlockian investigator, time traveler, secret conspiracy, masochistic hero, and albino panther-man. But you won’t lack for entertainment.
This isn’t to say that The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is a perfect pulp confection. With so many characters on the playing-field, the ending gets a tad confusing. The opening is distinctly rocky, as it unnecessarily frontloads readers with Burton’s background, instead of lightly filling in the details throughout the novel (overwhelmed readers may want to skip ahead to Burton’s first visit to the Cannibal Club). The narrative’s darkly fun tone becomes decidedly unfun when the increasingly deranged time traveler attempts serial rape. Which brings us to the female characters: unreconstructed victims and helpmeets who barely partake in the revisionist-pulp action. Here’s hoping the gals get equal footing with the guys in an outrageously inventive steam-pulp sequels.
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
373 pages | Trade Paperback | $16.00
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