Review by Hayden Thorne
This sex-filled farce is part James Bond, part Austin Powers. Lucifer Box is a portrait painter and a rake who catches the eye of all the ladies. But there are two things these women don’t know about him. First, Lucifer is His Majesty’s top secret agent. Second, Lucifer is a mad, passionate lover…with his delectable right-hand man, Charlie. Together, the two must set out to discover why Britain’s most prominent scientists are turning up dead. They and a cast of quirky characters must work together to save the world from total destruction. And it all seems to center around an underground sex club, which goes to show that sometimes, you just have to mix business with pleasure.
The first thing I need to point out in my review of Gatiss’ novel is the description above, which is taken directly from the book’s cover blurb. The description is misleading to a degree. Firstly, it’s not sex-filled – or at least as sex-filled as the blurb seems to impress upon readers. There are sex scenes, yes, but they’re few, and they’re of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety. Even the description of the underground sex club isn’t as titillating as it might sound, with the details being largely general and almost dismissive in tone, with the emphasis more on atmosphere. Secondly, there’s the matter of Box’s “delectable right-hand man” and his relationship with him. For that bit, I’ll have to leave you in a cliffhanger of sorts while I go over other points first.
On the whole, The Vesuvius Club is a fun read. Very fun. Gatiss knows his Victorian and Edwardian London – please excuse the cliche – like the back of his hand. He firmly cements us in his world, its elegance and its seediness, its host of refined and coarse residents. He pours on the details without bogging down the narrative, and we’re left with vivid mental pictures of a time and a place that’s so far removed from ours but ends up feeling very real. Gatiss peoples his novel with a variety of quirky characters, and he gives them distinct personalities and names that make you think of Dickens: Lucifer Box, Charlie Jackpot, Bella Pok, Jocelyn Poop, Christopher Miracle, Emmanuel Quibble, etc.
Mark Gatiss is known as an author of Dr. Who novels, and he also writes for the new Dr. Who series and in fact wrote “The Unquiet Dead,” the episode involving Charles Dickens and zombies for the new series’ first season. One can certainly see his love of Victorian England (in the novel’s case, Edwardian England) in the way he establishes both the setting and the characters’ personalities. In the first half of the book, with the events taking place in London, the story is at its most interesting. Though a comedy and definitely a satire of spy/assassin/detective fiction, the novel still impresses us with a fairly complex plot and a quick pace, with the story being told from Lucifer Box’s point of view.
It’s when the novel’s action moves to Italy that things go down. It’s an odd switch – not in terms of location, no, but in terms of focus. In the first half of the novel, we’re treated to a funny and engaging Sherlock Holmes-style plot; in the second half of the novel, however, things unaccountably turn sci-fi, and what could have been a more solid climax and denoument becomes a study in absurd plot twists involving Mt. Vesuvius, a cult (which made me scratch my head a few times), and the mastermind (and master plot) behind the scientists’ deaths. In brief, there’s such an incongruence in the story elements between the first and the second half of the novel, and what starts out as a very promising Holmes-meets-Austin-Powers plot unravels into a rather weak and silly end.
As for Charlie Jackpot? He’s not introduced till the second half of the novel, which I feel is far too late for him to be as significant a character as the book’s description implies. Yes, he does become Box’s right-hand man, but at that point in the story, his participation brings with it a certain forced feeling into the mix. Lucifer Box, as the protagonist, is witty, self-centered, narcissistic, and an insufferable cad. He’s given so many great lines of the laugh-out-loud variety, but I don’t feel as attached to him as I’d like to be. For all his attractive roguish qualities, the man’s a bastard, and he even takes pleasure in hurting Charlie in one scene or telling some poor, unattractive rent boy that he’s butt-ugly, point blank.
There are a few subplots that also don’t feel satisfactorily tied up. Mrs. Knight’s disappearance and the murder of Abigail, for instance, though largely explained, still leaves holes insofar as justice being brought to the true criminal is concerned. There are also a few involving Bella Pok, which makes me wonder if Gatiss simply bit off more than he could chew in putting his mystery together.
The Vesuvius Club is the first of a trilogy involving Lucifer Box. This book has also been turned into a graphic novel, which I’m really interested in reading though I understand that it’s a distilled version of the original.