"The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes: Volume One" Book Review
Written by Ron Williams
Published by Titan Books
Written by George Mann
2013, 317 pages, Fiction
Released on September 24th, 2013
The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes: Volume One is a collection of short stories set in George Mann's Victorian steampunk fantasy universe, which is more fully explored in the novels The Affinity Bridge, The Osiris Ritual, The Immorality Engine and The Revenant Express. While familiar with steampunk in general, I've never read British author Mann, and I hadn't heard of Newbury and Hobbes before. Being a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, and Alan Moore's original League of Extraordinary Gentleman, I looked forward to seeing what he had done here.
Mann has taken the stock, almost cliched, characters of Clever Hero and Intrepid Sidekick and managed to keep them fresh and original. The role of Clever Hero is played by Sir Maurice Newbury, an 'investigator for the Crown'. In these stories the role of Intrepid Sidekick changes, but is generally his assistant Veronica Hobbes, with another constant character being his longtime friend Chief Inspector Bainbridge of Scotland Yard. While original, Mann has left enough there to let them remain familiar enough to easily accept at face value. We're not challenged by the characters and we get to know them as we get to know the rest of his world.
The universe Mann's created, an alternate Victorian London, is an interesting one. Unlike many over-the-top steampunk creations, it's not overly driven with ridiculous technology. It's still very much the sensible, dirty, London we think we know from Sherlock Holmes. Only this one has dirigibles piloted by punch-card mechanical men, crab-shaped submarines, supernatural creatures and foreign intrigue. It's very much a creation of someone who was a fan of Sherlock Holmes, who then said, "Wouldn't it be cool if..." And for the most part, the "what ifs" are pretty cool.
There are two problems I had with this collection. The first is there's an inordinate amount of Christmas stories here. For a general collection of short stories, one can be tolerated. But as you keep reading this book, you hit a vein of Christmas stories and it's tiresome. It's also annoying that there's nothing to most of these that make them specifically Christmas related, most could take place anytime in the winter (or any other time of the year). It's almost as if Mann has a hidden agenda towards proving he can write a story that takes place during that specific holiday.
The other problem is a lot of these aren't even full-fledged stories. Some just seem to be snippets of ideas or scenes, or an idea worked through that maybe should've been included with a larger work. Along with that, some of the stories presented here are told in one of the most laziest ways a writer can take; someone telling a story in flashback. So many of these seem to be retellings of an adventure by people sitting around in a parlor drinking brandy and smoking cigarettes. That engages readers like listening to someone's drunk uncle telling stories about how things were back in his day.
The reason I feel the need to point these things out is that Mann can actually write a good story. He's not a slouch. There are other stories in this book that are clever and interesting. Stories full of the Victorian Steampunk Mystery promised on the cover. But he sabotages himself with bad decision making, whether it's to write a long scene and call it a short story, using flashback as a favored device, or spending too much in time with Father Christmas.
Regardless, there's enough here to make the book worth reading, and if you're already a fan of Mann, you'll undoubtedly overlook any of my points and enjoy the stories for what they are. If you're not a fan of Mann but curious about his work, you'd probably find this book interesting as well, as it seems to provide a good sampling of the rich universe he's created.