Fiction Reviews

Johannes Cabal the Detective

(2010) Jonathan L. Howard, Hodder Headline, £7.99, pbk, 400pp, ISBN 978-0-755-34797-1


This is the second novel describing the adventures of Johannes Cabal. The first novel was Johannes Cabal The Necromancer and that title tells you a lot about our lead character.

I hesitate to call him our hero because there is neither anything to particularly like about him nor is there anything to particularly dislike about him. He is a very professional necromancer and is dedicated to his job of raising the dead, though this does not exactly make him popular anywhere (it is, after all, illegal, and nobody likes having their dead relatives messed about with). He is a cold and very calculating person, interested in little other than his science. He has no interest in killing people per se, indeed, he thinks it is a waste of perfectly good life, on the other hand he does not hesitate to rapidly dispose of anyone who gets in his way or might prove an excessive inconvenience.

He is a very intelligent and a shrewd observer of all around him and it is this intelligent and cynical view, combined with the witty way the book is written, that makes the book both interesting and very enjoyable. I would hesitate to say it is laugh-out-loud funny, but it is very, very amusing. Indeed, Cabal's observations on the world, as expressed by the author, is akin to the insight which Terry Pratchett bestows upon his characters and their activities on the Discworld (though I would point out that this is nothing like a Discworld novel).

The story opens in the far eastern European country of Mirkarvia where Cabal had recently attempted to steal a copy of the vary rare Principia Necromantica; he has been caught and is in the dungeons, awaiting his fate. As luck would have it, Emperor Antrobus the Second has suddenly died and this is very inconvenient for the plans of Count Marechal who has every intention of succeeding him - but not for another few days! Consequently Cabal finds himself employed to raise the late Emperor until his death would be more politically expedient.

Having succeeded in this task, Cabal takes the opportunity to escape and tricks his way onto the Princess Hortense, a passenger aeroship on its maiden voyage, a non-stop flight of several days to the neighbouring country of Senza. Life, of course, is never that simple and on the first night one of the passengers mysteriously disappears, apparently having been “helped” out of a window and condemned to a rapid descent from a great height. Having decided to look into the matter, if only to ensure his own safety, Cabal soon finds himself the victim of a similar but fortunately unsuccessful attack.

The aeroship is full of interesting characters and Cabal suspects that most are neither who nor what they claim to be, or at least have agendas significantly different than those they profess to. He had already met Leonie Barrow in the previous book and thus we learn something of his earlier adventures; at first he is less than pleased to find her aboard but he reluctantly accepts her as something of an ally. Such details of his past actions and events as we need to know are thus recounted but it is in no way necessary to have read the previous book; the author has handled this very well. Indeed, I am left wanting to read said book as the story sounds rather interesting!

As this is a who-dunit I shall leave the story at this point. Suffice it to say that Cabal develops many suspicions, some true but others proving erroneous or at least misleading, and the body count increases until the truth finally emerges.

The book comes with a few illustrations; the map is hardly necessary but I did enjoy the cut-away drawings from “The Clarion: The Boys’ Call to Adventure!” (think of the back page of The Eagle comic and you will know what I mean). The first is of the Princess Hortense (showing such delights as the gyroscopic levitators and the etheric (magnetic) line guides) and the other is of an Entomopter (a flying machine with rotating wings, on the principle of the dragonfly). Perhaps I should have mentioned earlier that the story is set maybe a century or so in the past, in a Europe much like our own but just a little different on its eastern fringes, and with some technologies having taken a different and interesting direction.

Although there are some 400 pages the story is well paced and ticks along nicely; there is no sense that the pages are filled just for the sake of the page count. It is an easy and enjoyable read and I was often much amused. Oh, and although I still could not call Cabal a hero, I found myself warming to him; there is something quite appealing about the honesty of his (admittedly entirely selfish) motivations and actions, his matter-of-fact views of those around him, and his wry attitude.

All-in-all, one of the most enjoyable books I have read in a while. Other authors please take note!

Peter Tyers

See also Robert Grant's take on Johannes Cabal the Detective.

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