Written by George Mann — The Executioner’s Heart sees George Mann return to the Victorian London he so ably depicted in The Affinity Bridge, The Immorality Engine, and The Osiris Ritual, which formed the first three books in the Newbury & Hobbes series. It’s an alternative vision of the period, where the aged Queen, kept alive by science well past her natural life span, rules over her Empire. There is a democracy of sorts but the Queen remains sovereign over Parliament. Ever suspicious of plots against her, she has an army of Agents, often working in isolation, ignorant of the work of others, but all helping maintain her hold on matters.
Two such agents are Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Victoria Hobbes. Circumstances have led to the pair working together for some time, and though there is a growing affection between them, it remains unresolved, and indeed they both keep secrets from one another. Victoria is a confident and assertive young lady who constantly finds herself battling against society’s expectations of what a women’s role is. She has a sister, Amelia, whom the pair saved from certain death. Amelia suffers from a form of epilepsy which has so far proved to be untreatable, but is now slowly improving. During the seizures she has clairvoyant visions which have proved to be remarkably prescient.
Sir Maurice is an opium addict and occultist whose decadent lifestyle causes concern for his friends, though in recent stories he has seemed more reclusive and haggard. Secretly he has been performing a ritual to relieve Amelia of her curse, and whilst it’s working, it is slowly destroying him. He is getting weaker and has started to have fits. He’s now beginning to get a less developed form of the visions Amelia sees.
Helping the couple in their adventures is Sir Charles Bainbridge, Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard and one of the founders of the Secret Service, an operation analogous to the Queen’s Agents, but answering to Parliament. He brings in Newbury and Hobbes to consult in a baffling case. Three people, seemingly unrelated to one another have been murdered, the scenes converted to a charnel house of blood and gore, their ribs cracked open and their hearts removed whilst still beating. London has a serial killer!
The investigation goes nowhere until the Queen reveals all of the victims were Agents for her. She senses a plot from within and casts suspicion on the Secret Service. In a separate secret visit her son Prince Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales blames foreign spies, agents of The Kaiser Wilhelm, who he feels are trying to destabilise the Empire. Meanwhile, the pride of the Empire, The Great Exhibition opening at Crystal Palace is approaching. Newbury and Hobbes are worried that it’s the ripe for being sabbotaged, and they’re only too aware that as Queen’s Agents they too may be targeted for gruesome deaths. They know the clock is ticking.
The crime fiction purist may not feel entirely satisfied with The Executioner’s Heart – crime is only part of the story here. However the book is largely a success. Mann blends historical fact and fiction, and the political intrigue adds another layer of complexity to the main characters. Each has to ask where their loyalty is. To the Queen, the State, or to each other? The mystery is great fun with a killer who is as sympathetic as terrifying, and as in the rest of the series Mann’s departures from the Victorian London of history add colour and intrigue. The mixing of crime with a parallel history, horror and fantasy may be a relatively new thing but the mix of likeable characters in peril with a dash of romance makes for a timeless recipe.
Read our interview with the author here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars