Fiction Reviews


Johannes Cabal The Detective

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

This book's predecessor, Johannes Cabal The Necromancer was one of my favourite books of 2009 and rightly so, it was beautifully written, incredibly smart and very, very funny and I'm glad to report that this follow up is its equal in every way.

We catch up with our eponymous hero as he languishes in the condemned cell of Harslaus Castle in Mirkarvia after being caught trying to steal a very rare copy of the Principia Necromantia from the Krenz University library. In the manner typical of the kind of good luck that often seems to follow his bad luck, Cabal finds himself hoisted from the cat-ridden, stinking dungeon, bathed, shaved, suited and booted and presented to Count Marechal of the Emperor's own bodyguard. It transpires that the Emperor has died and he would like Cabal to perform his necromantic 'art' on him and train him to give a final speech urging the country to war with its neighbours. The Emperor will then suffer a tragic fate leaving Marechal as the Nation's obvious leader in place of the child heir. Seeing a way out of his predicament Cabal agrees to the plan, but with his usual disdain for jumped-up folk like Marechal he sabotages the speech and executes a daring escape from Krenz aboard the brand new aeroship 'The Hortense' posing as civil servant Gerhard Meissner.

All would appear to be going to plan until he is recognised by Miss Leonie Barrow - criminal psychologist and daughter of police inspector Frank Barrow, first encountered in the previous book - but before she can denounce him a series of unexplained murders on-board ship followed by an attempt on his life leave the two of them playing detective to solve the mystery of the Hortense, and Cabal trying to figure out a way to escape when they reach their waypoint at Senza before Leonie gives him up to the authorities, and all this while maintaining his stolen persona.

Jonathan L Howard is the kind of writer that does not come along too often. His stories are excellent, his characters fully rounded and interesting, his dialogue witty and clever and the execution sublime, rewarding repeated reading in ways that most books just do not. There's also a very definite 'Englishness' to them, demonstrated in the upstairs/downstairs separation of class and status, new money and old money, wealth and title, and that "What will people think?" mentality that the English, to this day, still worry about. But this 'Englishness' is also demonstrated in spades in the humour that suffuses every page and in every style - witty, sarcastic, caustic, dry, ironic - I can think of maybe a handful of writers that can make me laugh out loud but very few that can do it so many ways.

Johannes Cabal The Detective is reminiscent of the kind of 'locked room' murder mysteries of Agatha Christie, but played for laughs. The action is both gripping and plausible and the clues tease and tantalise, not giving their secrets up easily but rather leaving the reader scratching their head in puzzlement right up to an ending that is as unexpected as it is inevitable. The writing is hugely stylised and works to help accomplish this very feat but it is done with such panache that you go with it for the fun of the reading. The politics and culture of Mirkarvia, Senza and Katamenia are layered atop the story to add flavour to the proceedings and there's no little satire in the way they are presented if you care to dig deeper into what is being said. Cabal himself is the perfect foil in this case as he doesn't care about any of them, believing them all as corrupt, stupid and vainglorious as each other and his sly witticisms on the subject ask as many questions as they answer.

So a terrific sophomore outing for Howard, one that does not disappoint and makes me look forward enormously to the continuing adventures of everyone's favourite necromancer. Incidentally, the last few pages of the book comprise a bonus novella entitled 'The Tomb of Umtak Ktharl' and cover events just after the novel's conclusion and I would be more than happy with one of these every couple of months to keep me entertained between the bigger stuff. What do you say Mr. Howard?

I think it is important at this stage to mention two things. First, you do not have to have read the first book to enjoy this one, they are both stand alone novels and very accessible. Second, stop reading this, right now, and run like a nut-job to your nearest bookshop and snap them both up, such is the fun to be had with each, I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Robert Grant

This review was first published at SCI-FI-LONDON.

See also Peter Tyer's take on Jonathan L. Howard's Johannes Cabal the Detective.


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