George Mann’s The Casebook of Newbury & Hobbes collects 15 short stories featuring Sir Maurice Newbury, a Victorian detective, and his assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes. These characters first appeared in The Affinity Bridge (2008); The Osiris Ritual (2009), The Immortality Engine (2011) and The Executioner’s Heart (2013) continue their investigations. Newbury is a contemporary of and, as “The Case of the Night Crawler” makes clear, something of a rival to Sherlock Holmes. Where Holmes represents the apogee of modern scientific reasoning, Newbury frequently delves into the occult to solve his paranormal mysteries.
Mann’s love for the famous resident of 221B Baker Street is apparent in these pages. Indeed, he edited Encounters of Sherlock Holmes (2013), and has two Holmes offerings forthcoming from Titan Books. Newbury, like Holmes, is eccentric and reclusive. Both have a weakness for drugs—cocaine for Holmes, opium for Newbury. The two detectives also share a propensity to speak in paragraphs.
This book is full of allusions to the fin de siècle authors who clearly inspired Mann, writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of course), Charles Dickens, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, as well as more obscure references, like Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897). Despite this basis in the literature of the Victorian era, The Casebook of Newbury & Hobbes is filled with unique challenges for our heroes. We get a half-tree/half-witch monstrosity, shape-changing fish-men and tiny mechanical spiders. Even where a familiar element appears, like a squid-shaped submarine reminiscent of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, Mann offers some surprises.
Throughout the collection, Mann experiments with forms. “The Hambleton Affair” is narrated through a frame tale, just like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). “What Lies Beneath” is an epistolary novel like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). “A Rum Affair” is told in twelve parts, each one a 100-word “drabble.” This last experiment does not really work as a detective story, but is an interesting exercise nonetheless.
The collection also displays Mann’s growth as a writer. Some of the earlier stories are filled with amateurish adverbs. Characters don’t just slurp, they do so noisily; when they glower, it is accusingly; and they smile warmly or, worst of all, “not unkindly.” This habit relents in the later stories.
There is also a frustrating misuse of words. Bemused means “confused,” not “amused.” To beg the question does not mean “to raise a question”; it is a logical fallacy in which an argument rests on an unproven assumption. Irony is a statement that’s actual meaning is the opposite of its literal meaning; it is not any of the things Alanis Morrisette thinks it is. Finally, they always refers to more than one person and is not a gender-neutral substitute for “he” or “she.” These are very common mistakes, but professional writers (or at least their editors) should know better.
These weaknesses in language are more than overcome by solid storytelling. The pieces hold up well by themselves, but the book works best as a supplement to the novels, adding depth to the backstory and filling in some gaps. The real character development occurs in the longer works. The Casebook of Newbury & Hobbes is nevertheless an entertaining collection. Fans of Sherlock Holmes and steampunk will particularly enjoy these stories, though anyone with a taste for adventure will find much to like here.[subscribe2]
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As for myself, I’m turned off. Matt, thank you thank you THANK YOU for discussing the use of language in this book. No matter the story, the drama, if the language lacks, I’m out.
You’re welcome, Anthony. I should point out that the language improves as the book goes on, but the early problems really impacted how I read the rest of it. When I spot errors at the beginning, I focus on finding more of them instead of just enjoying what I’m reading.