When anyone asks me for a recommendation for a good steampunk series, I have two authors that I always recommend. Always. One of those is George Mann, author and creator of the Newbury & Hobbes series of investigation novels that began with The Affinity Bridge novel. (The other author is Mark Hodder, and I’ll be giving him some coverage in the next few weeks.)
For over four years, I’ve eagerly anticipated each adventure that Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes have undertaken on behalf of Queen and Country. The bond between the two investigators has grown, the dangers have increased, and secret after secret has either been revealed or further buried as a deeper storyline has slowly threaded itself through the subsequent novels, The Osiris Ritual and The Immorality Engine. Now, a fourth novel, The Executioner’s Heart, is beginning to answer questions (and, of course, create new ones) while at the same time ratcheting up the tension between the main characters and pretty much all of the minor ones.
Those familiar with the first three novels will know that Sir Maurice continues down some dangerous paths with his interest in the occult; Queen Victoria, however, is less concerned about his health and sanity and more interested in putting the agent back to work and hunting down any and all foreign agents that pose a threat (or appear to post a threat) to her authority. As Sir Maurice and Veronica investigate a killer who removes the hearts from the victims, they find their new investigation and the Queen’s challenge to both be pointing at a single person… The Executioner.
While the hunt for the Executioner is the primary story being told here, there is SO much more going on in the background. Lines are being drawn, sides taken, friendships being strained, and loyalties are constantly questioned. This fourth novel is most definitely setting up the next two novels (yes, two… at least) for some twists and shocks for the true fans of Newbury and Hobbes… there are subtle hints and not-so-subtle statements made throughout the book that make it clear that something dark and nasty is on the horizon.
Don’t start with this book if you’re new to the characters. Mann doesn’t waste time providing a lot of backstory to catch readers up… thankfully! Instead, head back to The Affinity Bridge and start catching up. If you’re willing to accept a few minor spoilers, I’ve got a great interview with George Mann appended to the end of this review that will hopefully convince you that this is a well-developed world with well-rounded characters for whom you’ll root for or shake your head in contempt. The Executioner’s Heart, as I understand it, places us towards the end of the mid-arc… and I’m glad to hear from Mann that there are at least two more books planned (per the interview). But if you’re really REALLY needing some more Newbury and Hobbes? Well, I’m happy to report that this is really a two-book review.
Mann has also released a collection of N&H short stories in The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes, Volume One. Yep… Volume One! Fifteen short stories that span a significant time period from just before Newbury and Hobbes began their partnership to a few post-N&H surprises. Fans of N&H will get some Easter eggs in the form of a few surprise appearances by characters mentioned (or hinted at) in the novels along with a few crossover stories that involve a certain famous London detective I’m sure you can deduce.
Have you read Mann’s other steampunk series that revolve around the superhero, The Ghost? If so, you’ll recognize a character or two as a few short stories take place quite a few years after the novels in a year when The Ghost novels are set.
And if you’re trying to keep everything straight, Mann has included a very useful Timeline in the back of the Casebook that provides a listing of how the short stories fit in and around the first five novels. Mann even includes how the Timeline includes The Ghost novels and his Dr. Who (yes, I said Dr. Who) novel and two of his not-yet-released Sherlock Holmes novels. Yeah, that was a fanboy squeal you just heard.
Wrapping up the book are a series of notes from Mann related to each story — just a short paragraph or two providing some additional commentary for true N&H fans. The Casebook is most definitely a gift for any N&H fan and is not to be missed.
Whether you love or hate steampunk, if you love great characters, good plotting, twists and turns, and a large story-arc that slowly develops and grabs hold, you really owe it to yourself to give the Newbury and Hobbes novels a read.
A very special thanks to George Mann for taking the time to respond to my questions about N&H and a few other topics that fans may find interesting:
James Floyd Kelly: I think fans are really going to appreciate the timeline that you include in the Casebook, and I appreciated the author notes about each short story. From your comments, I gather that the short stories were written at different times and in different orders (relative to the novels). There are so many references in both novels and short stories, and I’m amazed that you can keep everything straight. Do you have an overall set of notes that you use to define where the N&H stories begin and end? And if so, how far out have you gone with the N&H world and characters you’ve created?
George Mann: To be honest, the more the series develops, the harder it’s getting to keep track of everything! I’ve had the general shape of the N&H story worked out for quite some time, the broad beats and character arcs, but I try not to let that get in the way of being inventive. Generally speaking, if I have a good idea for a story, I write it and then worry about the timeline afterwards. The timeline – or at least an annotated, expanded version of it – is pretty much what I use to make sense of where the stories begin and end, although I also have marked up copies of all the novels, and a fair few exercise books full of notes. There are so many stories I want to tell with these characters!
James Floyd Kelly: I’ve stated in a previous N&H review that Bainbridge is my absolute favorite character. He’s similar to Watson in that he often doesn’t know the full story and is kept in the dark by N&H (“Sacrificial Pawn” comes to mind). He’s moved from what seems to be a minor, supporting character to a primary one. With the introduction of the Secret Service, are we seeing the development of a rival organization to Newbury’s investigative role or a supportive one? And is Bainbridge’s role in that organization going to continue to put him at odds with Newbury and Veronica? Really just looking for any hints about where this Secret Service storyline is heading…
George Mann: Bainbridge is definitely part of the ‘Scooby gang’ these days. He’s one of the key characters in Newbury and Veronica’s story. He’s always there to offer advice and help to steer things, to keep Newbury on track. But what would happen if, one day, he wasn’t? That’s something that I’m definitely keen to explore further, and that’s where things are headed at the end of The Executioner’s Heart, with the friendships fractured and everyone going their own way. The Secret Service is going to play a big role in book six, The Albion Initiative, and that whole storyline is going to come to a head. All the characters face difficult choices in that book, and afterwards, the status quo is going to be very, very different.
The emergence of the Secret Service and the appearance of Professor Angelchrist are also setting things up for the future, of course. It’s the same institution that Peter Rutherford is working for twenty five years later when we meet him in Ghosts of War.
James Floyd Kelly: Lady Arkwell gets a brief mention in The Executioner’s Heart as well as an origin story in The Lady Killer, but there’s also mention of numerous encounters with Newbury plus a post-Revenant short story that made me smile. Should we expect to see her again in The Revenant Express or will she continue to be more of a short story subject? (I see that the Casebook is labeled Volume One, so I can only hope you have plans for a Volume Two. And a Volume Three.)
George Mann: Lady Arkwell is a great deal of fun to write, and one day there might well be a novel detailing her tete-a-tete with Newbury. Their relationship (such as it is) spans years, running parallel to the main saga. Newbury’s absolutely fascinated by her ambiguity, the fact she operates under her own, very particular, moral code. Sometimes that puts her at odds with him, but it also means that sometimes their goals are aligned.
She’s not a main player in the events that play out across The Revenant Express and The Albion Initiative, but she will turn up again in further short stories and novellas. And yes, I’m certainly hoping there’ll be more volumes of the Casebook.
James Floyd Kelly: It was fun to read the N&H crossover with Holmes and Watson in The Nightcrawler short story (I had originally read it in the Further Encounters collection you edited) and I liked the nod to “The Detective” later in the Casebook . Do you have any plans for additional encounters between these two pairs of investigators?
George Mann: Absolutely, yes. At least one more time. An older Newbury turns up in my second Holmes novel, The Spirit Box, which is set during the early days of WWI, and details some of the events alluded to by Watson in The Nightcrawler. It’s not a theme I’m going to mine too eagerly, though – the crossovers are fun, but Newbury, Veronica and Bainbridge have plenty more of their own adventures in store!
James Floyd Kelly: With the fourth novel, you’ve got every major character (including Victoria) in possession of one or more big secrets, and it seems that things are fast approaching some sort of critical mass where the fallout could go either way… good or bad. You’ve also got a bunch of loose ends and secondary story lines going on (Cabal, Arkwell, Alberta, Secret Service). Any comment on whether the fifth book may pull all (or a good number) of these secrets and loose ends together?
George Mann: As I mentioned earlier, things are starting to come to a head. In the fifth book certain events are set in motion that will play out in the sixth book, and some of the story lines you mention will be resolved. Although really, the fifth book just continues to ratchet up the tension, putting some of the characters – Newbury and Amelia particularly – through the wringer.
James Floyd Kelly: Your timeline and many short stories indicate that you view all of your short stories and novels as existing in the same world. It surprised me to see reference to Rutherford (The Ghost novels) in there! Was it always your intention to have the world of N&H evolve into the world of The Ghost? And speaking of The Ghost… might you have any hints to offer about a possible third Ghost book?
George Mann: Yes, this is very purposeful. Most of what I write takes place in the same fictional continuum. I’m interested in developing my alternate history of the twentieth century, and telling stories that explore common themes. As a reader I love it when authors seed ‘Easter eggs’ into their books, references to other stories and characters that reward constant readers, and I think it helps to add a depth and cohesion to what I’m doing, too.
There are definitely going to be more Ghost novels in the future, sometime after The Albion Initiative. I have firm plans for at least two further books, and maybe some short stories too. There are lots more stories to come for Gabriel Cross!
James Floyd Kelly: Your author notes in Casebook mention that Charles will be featured in your next Sherlock Holmes novel, The Will of the Dead. First, let me congratulate you on a most excellent decision there, as I’m looking forward to hearing Holmes’ thoughts on Bainbridge (versus Lestrade). The timeline puts this story well ahead of The Affinity Bridge while an upcoming Holmes novel of yours, The Spirit Box, is placed chronologically after The Revenant Express. Will any N&H characters make an appearance in this novel, or is it a standalone Holmes tale?
George Mann: As I mentioned above, Newbury plays a role in this book, along with Professor Angelchrist and Bainbridge, too. It’s a bit of an ensemble cast, really, although at its heart it’s a Holmes and Watson novel. They’re all considerably older by 1915, of course, and I love the idea of having all these older men saving the world from a mad spiritualist and his strange machine that purports to capture souls. All set against the backdrop of a WWI that’s playing out a little differently to established history.
James Floyd Kelly: One final timeline question — I’m not that knowledgable of Dr. Who, and I see that you’ve placed your Dr. Who novel, Paradox Lost, in that timeline. Is Rutherford the only link to the N&H world or are there other nods to N&H in that novel?
George Mann: Professor Angelchrist is one of the main characters in that novel, and that’s why it appears on the timeline, really. I suppose it’s a bit of a sidestep, really, but the links are there for those readers who’ve encountered Angelchrist in The Executioner’s Heart or the short stories in the Casebook.
The Maharajah’s Star is perhaps the nexus point of my fictional universe, actually, and that’s the first time Angelchrist ever appeared, talking to Rutherford about an old adventure he’d had with Newbury, Bainbridge and Veronica. That was a story I wrote for a charity anthology, and it was the first time I had all the elements of my different series come together under the same roof.
James Floyd Kelly: You’ve stated that you’re a big Holmes fan, and I love that we’re starting to see more and more new Holmes tales released. Decades from now, N&H will enter the public domain — what are your thoughts on other writers one day creating their own adventures for your two investigators? (And if you care to share, how do you feel about the current lawsuit that’s asking courts to rule that the Holmes stories should be put into public domain?)
George Mann: I think if I had the opportunity to peer into the future and discover that people were still enjoying N&H stories long after my death, I’d be very honoured. I’m a bit of a control freak, really, and I think anyone else writing a N&H story while I was still alive would have a terrible time, as I’d be peering over their shoulder, constantly saying things like ‘he wouldn’t do that, you know’ and ‘oh, no, you’ve got that completely wrong.’
I don’t really know the ins-and-outs of the Holmes lawsuit, but I’m very pleased that the characters are out of copyright in the UK, which has allowed me to co-opt them for my own use!
James Floyd Kelly: Let me finish up with a question about spin-offs — have you ever considered giving any of your other characters their own novel-length mystery? I’m not just thinking of Bainbridge, but also Renwick or maybe even The Fixer. (Tales of the “albino count” would also be fun to read more.) You’ve developed some amazing minor characters over the four released novels, and I think your fans (at least this one) would jump at the chance to read a bit more about them in their own adventures.
George Mann: This is something I’d love to do. In particular, I think Bainbridge, Rutherford and Angelchrist deserve stories of their own. I’d definitely not rule it out, although I have more N&H and Ghost stories to tell first. I’d also like to do more with Newbury and Templeton Black, his first assistant, during the time before Newbury met Veronica.
I had a great deal of fun writing The Dark Path, where I finally got to introduce Templeton properly, and I’ve a feeling we’ll be seeing more of him before too long.