Former boxer and aspiring investigator Harry Stubbs is back in a new adventure, this time in his own novel!
David Hambling’s latest book features a hunt for a mysterious artifact, one that seems to be leaving a trail of bodies in its wake. The artifact is sought after by people from both the lowest and highest rungs of society, involving wealthy cult members chasing after its supernatural power, and thugs hoping to sell it to the highest bidder. Harry will have to figure out who his friends are in a hurry, because there’s someone else involved in the search, someone who’ll happily kill to protect their secrets.
“Those old forbidden books are forbidden for a reason…But some people just don’t get the message. They find those loose threads in the fabric of reality, and they just can’t leave them alone.”
The story starts with Harry Stubbs in a job that might not be entirely legal. The events of his last adventure left him unemployed, so he’s now working with his friend Skinner for an employer who gives them assignments which don’t always make sense: renew chalk marks here, check that tomb there, follow this person and write down what they do every day. Everything’s on a need-to-know basis, so when they’re sent to recover something from the apartment of a Mabel Brown they’re not told what that something is, just that they’ll know it when they find it.
The condition of Mabel Brown’s body when they break into her apartment doesn’t tell them anything else about what they’re looking for. But it does tell them that their search just got a lot more complicated.
Harry Stubbs is the same likable, easygoing, and tough to rattle character that he was in his earlier stories. His skills as a former boxer aren’t going to get him anything like a stable job, so he’s learning to become a private detective via a correspondence course, which is kind of endearing. He’s also able to use what he learns in those courses, so he makes a lot of progress in tracking down the artifact through a maze of secret cults, long forgotten documents, and a wealthy American woman who’s “writing a book” (I don’t think Harry buys that any more than the reader does).
So he’s definitely not just a bruiser, although we do get some entertaining scenes of him punching his way out of barroom brawl, or cleverly finding a way to physically throw out a difficult library patron without laying a finger on him.
David Hambling has done some extensive research for this book, threading into the story details about real-life British secret societies, the famous Horiman Museum and its eccentric founder, and a few tidbits about the occultist Paracelsus. It’s all grounded in the setting of 1925 London and the day-to-day lives of the shop owners, factory workers, purveyors of items legal and not-so-legal, and all the other people just trying to make a living and maybe not get killed by assassins, mutated creatures, or strange items which might or might not attract lightning.
As usual, my favorite elements of the story are the ones with a distinct Lovecraftian feel. Plants seen through a greenhouse window have grown noticeably from one day to the next, and they may be moving. Every surface of the inside of a gypsy woman’s caravan is covered with ornate woodcarvings that grow more disturbing the closer you look at them. At one point Harry sees something he wishes he hadn’t in a carnival freak show, and the author makes us feel his disquiet afterwards by transforming the previously cheerful carnival into something foreboding and subtly nightmarish.
The book’s prologue starts on a very ominous tone, and by the end the reader is left to wonder exactly how we’re getting Harry’s first-person account of all of this. I’m sure Hambling has more stories to follow, since we’ve only just brushed the surface of the mystery of non-human powers and their all-too-human hunters.