Fiction Reviews

High Vaultage

(2024) Chris Sugden & Jen Sugden, Gollancz, £22, hrdbk, 384pp, ISBN 978-1-399-60416-1


My proof copy describes this book as being perfect for fans of Ben Aaronovitch, Tom Holt, and Terry Pratchett. I do not know about perfect, but I would agree that it is in the same mould; if you like the works of those authors then I think you will find yourself liking this one.

It is 1887 and the city of Even Greater London stretches over most of southern England. The Industrial Revolution has roared away and Victorian engineering dominates all, much of it at the hands of the Brunelians - the worker-followers of the Chief Engineer of the Empire, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (though the great man himself has not been seen for many years; last heard of he was wearing a laurel wreath and referring to himself as Brunelus Imperator). The work of the Brunelians is ceaseless; they might arrive unannounced one day and simply move all the houses on one side of a street by twenty feet, ready in case at some point somebody should wish to bring a tram service down the road. Life in Even Greater London can leave one in a state of perpetual bewilderment.

One night, Kathleen Price, a mudlark down by the permanently frozen Thames, spots a horse drawn carriage kidnap a man on Blackfriars Bridge. Knowing the police will not be interested in anything she might tell them, she takes her observation to the newly formed Fleet-Entwhistle Private Investigations, the first of its kind. Archibald Fleet had been a police inspector until, in pursuit of a villain, he fell off the roof of the Fortress of Westminster. He is still alive, or to be more exact revived, thanks to some nifty interventions by Her Majesty’s Royal Medical Engineers (the details of which even he is not sure of); however, being in receipt of a death certificate following the fall, the police are no longer able to employ him. Clara Entwhistle is a part-time crime reporter with the Morning Chronicler, which had lead to her joining forces with the Inspector as he had proved a good source of crime stories. As they have little other work at the moment, they decide to take on the case.

The crime Fleet would really like to be investigating is the recent series of strange bank robberies; in each case there is no sign of entry or exit and nothing much has been stolen, and in each case the bank’s security has been excellent. The police make it clear this is their case - not his! Later he will find out another interesting fact; in each case the police had found a totally innocent and perplexed person who had woken up in the vault and with no idea of how they got there.

After some digging round, which involves travelling to distant and little visited parts of Even Greater London, the investigators discover that the kidnapped man was an officer with the Brunelians; later they will discover that he is not the only such officer to have gone missing (and usually later found murdered). And always on about the same date as one of the strange bank robberies. But what is the pattern - and why?

The story runs smoothly along; it does not have much pace but it remains interesting as the investigators move from location to location, following clues and interviewing people, especially in its descriptions of Even Greater London and how many of its organisations work (such as the Office of the Well-Running of the City). Apart from the story being inventive and interesting up until its end (it is, after all, a who-dunnit), it is very amusingly written (hence the reference to Aaronovitch, Holt, and Pratchett). It is the humorous attitude of the book that makes it so enjoyable.

Peter Tyers


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