The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss (Simon and Schuster, 2004). The first of three novels following Lucifer Box, a very different kind of secret agent. Lucifer Box is a part time foppish artist, part time James Bond for Edwardian England. Set across Europe, Box investigates the disappearance of some of the world’s most prominent volcanologists, leading him into the depths of depravity that are the Vesuvius Club. Of course, depravity is where Lucifer Box is most at home...
I was a fan of the League of Gentlemen back when it first came out. And I was aware that Mark Gatiss has been pretty prolific with his writing career since. He’s done the odd Doctor Who episode, and he was the writer behind the latest BBC attempt at Sherlock Holmes (which I love by the way). I didn’t know that he wrote novels though, so his name rather jumped off the shelf at me when I saw it in the book shop.
The book’s sleeve promised an awful lot. Decadence, wit, high society, absurdity. Parallels are even drawn with Oscar Wilde (not once but twice) in the testimonials. So fair to say expectations were high.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Too much.
Gatiss certainly delivered a lot of what I was promised. There’s no doubt he has a pretty fascinating sense of humour. The invention of Lucifer Box as a character demands it. He really is quite brilliant; I’ve not come across anyone like him (real or otherwise) before. His vanity, his wit, his decadence, his constant (sometimes shocking) depravity – just his entire outlook on life and the way he goes about living it is absorbing. Simply meeting a character like this is entirely worth the entry fee.
The problem I found was that such a character would only be at home in the confines of an utterly outrageous plot. The story itself is just too ridiculous. Of course, it needs to be. To get the full Lucifer Box effect, he needs to be placed in daft situations. But it does detract from the overall enjoyment of the book a little. I found myself rolling my eyes on a handful of occasions, and that’s never a good sign.
Having said that, every roll of the eyes was matched with a smile a couple of paragraphs later. Gatiss writes with an Evelyn Waugh quality, but he gives it entirely new life and makes it his own by injecting it into a character like Lucifer Box.
I’ve since read another of the books in this series and I enjoyed it probably more than this one. Perhaps because I felt like I now know Lucifer Box and started to miss him, or perhaps because I was a bit more prepared for the “out there” plot. Either way, I’d definitely still recommend this first book of the three. Everyone should have a bit of Lucifer Box in their lives.
It’s fun. It’s different. But at times it’s a bit over the top. All in all, a solid...
I hovered between 6 and 7 for a while there, but stuck with the 6. Definitely worth a read to get an introduction to Box, but I think Gatiss delivered more with the other books in the series (which I will, of course, review later).