‘The Vesuvius Club’ by Mark Gatiss is very much one of those books that found me at the right place, at the right time and when I was particularly receptive to falling completely in love with it. I’m relatively familiar with Mark Gatiss’ work as a screenwriter (not to mention a massive fan of said work) but it was only recently when someone mentioned to me in passing that I found out he is also a novelist.
Naturally being a fan (and a nosy-parker) I did some research and I will admit on reading the kindle sample I was left a little bit uncertain as to whether it would be something I would enjoy, simply because it is very unlike anything I normally do read. I gravitate towards mostly towards speculative fiction or gritty crime (from before the Scandinavian authors became popular). As it turns out there are speculative elements, and while the protagonist I would say is more lucky than as clever as the likes of Poirot, I found more to enjoy than I had originally thought.
The book is the first in a trilogy centering around the character of Lucifer Box, a dapper secret service agent in Edwardian Britain, who ends up investigating a group of vulcanologists who are dying mysteriously. It is a light-hearted, witty romp through London and in the latter half of the book, Naples (of course, where else), where Lucifer has to try to solve the mystery and evade whoever it is that is trying to kill him. It’s a delightful read, with plenty of amusing names and remarks to entertain you along the way.
That wasn’t my first impression though. However, because I do have a great deal of faith in Mark Gatiss as a writer and because I’m trying to diversify my reading, I knew I would give it a go, but I made the decision to wait until I found a hard copy in a book shop rather than order it for direct delivery.
So several weeks later, I found myself killing time in St. Pancra’s train station. I was waiting for a train home to Newcastle, when I decided to go to Hatchard’s bookstore (well I say ‘decided’. I have found myself in bookstores before with no clue how I got there; it’s like a natural instinct for me to just enter them and figure out why afterwards). I’d had a half four start to get myself to London that morning, with another five hours before I’d be back at my front door. I was utterly exhausted and looking for something to keep me awake on the journey home.
Of course, I had brought a book with me, but it was heavy going with a rather grim plot, and I just wasn’t enjoying it. I knew if I tried to read it I’d end up asleep and in Edinburgh. This was when fate intervened and ‘The Vesuvius Club’ found me. I just knew that it was meant to be. I’d been uncertain about the book because of the flowery prose; it took just a little bit too much concentration to keep up with the descriptions. It was perfect for keeping me conscious.
Okay, I admit essentially saying ‘don’t worry this book isn’t a trained anesthesiologist’ is quite possibly not the best way to try and persuade you to give it a go. I promise I mean it in the nicest possible way: I did say, there was context in me falling in love with this book. That warm fuzzy feeling emerged when I realised I was traveling past Durham Cathedral, I was still awake, and I was dazed only because I been utterly engrossed in a really good book.
And it is with great irony that it the style of the prose, which had left me uncertain at first, is actually what I love the most. The book is told entirely from the perspective of the protagonist Lucifer. What I had thought to be a slightly superfluous use of adjectives and adverbs, is actually what creates one of the most distinctive character voices I’ve ever had the joy of getting to know.
I don’t entirely trust the reliability of everything Lucifer conveys to the reader, but that’s not the point. Everyone’s dialogue seems to be as witty and smooth as his own inner voice; while I’d initially thought I’d find that quite annoying, I actually find it endearing and rather amusing. It is a lovely foible of Lucifer’s personality; the desire to ensure that at no point could the reader possibly suspect that his life might not be as dapper, eccentric or as colourful as he would like to have us think. And I love it.
I’ve tried to read similar prose in the past, only to find myself bored and annoyed. It takes a certain amount of skill to pull it off properly, and I’m rather glad I put faith in Mark Gatiss’ talent as a wrtier. The imagery that got fired up in my head was fantastic, which forms an additional facet as to why I love the book so much.
Winston Churchill called it ‘the black dog’; Susan Calman ‘The Crab of Hate’. I call depression ‘The Thief’ because it robs me of the joy of seeing the colour, textures and beauty in the world around me. I’ve not been at my best lately, so to read a book with a character voice with such determination to ensure every minute detail of the world around him is colourful, textured, and essentially glowing was wonderful. It is what I found to be the most delightful part of discovering this book.
Needless to say I decided not to wait to find the second and the third books by chance; I’ve had them swiftly delivered to me.