The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, by Mark Hodder
Posted October 10, 2010on:
London: the 1860’s. Upperclass British gents fund explorations to Africa, Asia and beyond. Bored dilettantes drink wine, write poetry, and look for direction in their lives. The working class works tirelessly, and the upper class spends money like it’s going out of style.
Mark Hodder’s Victorian London isn’t exactly the London we know from history. The streets are clogged with smog belching penny farthings, and genetically modified domesticated animals carry messages across town. A technological revolution has come early, with the digital revolution fast on it’s heels. Arguing in the taverns are the Libertines and the Technologists, the former being both luddite and libertarian, and the latter filling the streets with their inventions as they push science further every day.
Mark Hodder writes a London that could have been, populated by people you might recognize. But this is who they could have been, who and what they might have become, had things been just a little different. The London of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack isn’t known as the “Victorian Age”, because young Victoria was assassinated at the age of 20, and Albert became King. And every page is fantastically delicious, whether you know your British history or not.
A debate has been scheduled between explorers Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Speke, but it’s cancelled at the last minute, as Speke has attempted to kill himself. Soon after, Burton is attacked by a creature known as Spring Heeled Jack, and the creature bluntly tells Burton to sod off.
The next day, Burton is given a royal commission to investigate sightings of werewolves in London. The werewolves are kidnapping children, returning some, and killing others. When Burton lets known that he’s seen the mysterious Spring Heeled Jack, finding and arresting that creature becomes his secondary mission. The devilish Spring Heeled Jack had been known to attack young working girls a few decades ago, and he has started attacking again.
Burton soon teams up with Algernon Swinburne, a bored dilettante who is desperate for some danger, something to inspire his poetry, something to give reason to his life. Algernon quickly became my favorite character, and not only because we’re both short redheads. Burton might be the consummate explorer and adventurer, but Algy knows no fear.
As Burton and Swinburne meet with the girls Spring Heeled Jack has attacked, they find a pattern. He is only going after women of specific families, and the werewolves are only kidnapping boys of a certain age who are chimney sweeps. What’s the connection, and what in the hell is going on in this alternate history London? Someone is trying to change the course of history, but why, and how?
We do meet Spring Heeled Jack, and we do find out who and what he’s all about. But I can’t go into any of that without spoiling the pure genius of the twist Hodder has come up with, which is the best part of the book. But let it be known: Hodder’s Spring Heeled Jack is bloody brilliant. Hodder will keep you on your toes, keep you guessing, and keep you turning pages. His smoggy London is full of mad scientists and of marvels and engineering, edgy and dangerous. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is fast and furious, and shockingly funny.
Although an excellent debut, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is not without faults. The main plot-line takes some time to get going, and the environment in which we learn the “real” story of Spring Heeled Jack feels over the top in comparison with the rest of the novel. There are loose ends and some plot points that never quite get figured out, but I’ll trust Hodder to tie everything together in future “Burton and Swinburne” novels.