The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack
The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder
Pyr, 2010, 377 pp.
It’s London, 1861. Sir Richard Burton, the explorer, is about to debate his former partner, John Speke, over the location of the Nile’s source, but word quickly comes that Speke has suffered from a gun shot wound that has left him at death’s door (but not quite dead). However, he soon disappears from the hospital.
Burton is soon thereafter hired on as a secret agent to His Majesty, King Albert, to take on cases that require someone of his abilities. He is given two cases to start with: look into reports of wolf-like men in London’s seedier districts, and try to discover the truth behind stories of bogeyman Spring-Heeled Jack, who has recently reappeared in London, years after his initial appearances during the assassination of Queen Victoria.
Things, of course, are never as simple as they seem, and Burton takes poet and friend Algernon Swinburne under his wing to help him sort out what is happening in this strange, steampunk alternative to the Victorian Age.
I’m a bit of a Victorian-era junkie, so I’ve welcomed the recent fad of steampunk books that combine the Victorian with SF/F. There are many aspects of the Victorian era that I enjoy, but more than others, the story of Burton and Speke has fascinated me ever since I saw the film “Mountains of the Moon.” So when I received a review copy of The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack and read the back blurb — steampunk! Burton! Spekes! — I was hooked. What more could I ask for?
But did the book hold up to my expectations? Yes, and no. It starts out very, very strong, pulling the reader in from the first page. To readers familiar with Victorian history, things almost immediately don’t sit right. (Speke died in 1864, not 1861.) But Hodder quickly brings in the fantastic to alert the reader that something is wrong: this is not the expected Victorian Age. But exactly what has gone wrong is only gradually and slowly revealed. As he unravels what went wrong, Hodder builds a captivating character in Sir Richard Burton.
However, the book starts to collapse in the second half when Hodder’s narrative shifts from a focus on Burton, to explaining the background of Spring-Heeled Jack. Instead of working the explanations into the main narrative thread, Hodder chooses to weave a new thread. Unfortunately, the central character in the history of Spring-Heeled Jack is nowhere as captivating as Burton — quite despicable, actually — and so the reader’s attention flags. The last quarter of the book returns the narrative to Burton, but the damage has been done and the forward movement just can’t be recovered.
As a first effort, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack is mostly well done, although flawed in places. It’s a strong start to what looks like is the first novel in a series of espionage/mystery/thriller adventure tales. I look forward to more to come.