Department header
Bewildering Stories

Jonathan Barnes, The Somnambulist

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

The Somnambulist
Author: Jonathan Barnes
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2008
Length: 353 pages
ISBN: 978-0-060137538-5
Ah, the eternal fascination of Sherlock Holmes. How often have we the readers visited that logical egoist and his many imitators? It’s not just the man, of course, but the milieu. There’s something about peering under the prim and proper skirt of Victorian society to see its dark underbelly — a rather naughty pleasure, like catching the priest leaning over to check out a parishioner’s cleavage. Rather like seeing Sherlock Holmes injecting cocaine, when he ought to know better.

We don’t have Sherlock Holmes in Jonathan Barnes The Somnambulist, but Edward Moon, conjurer extraordinaire and genius detective, makes a fair imitation. He’s a little sleazier than Sherlock Holmes (his retreat from boredom is not white powder, but a fetish for bearded ladies. Unlike Holmes, Moon is not a lust-free zone). His Victorian London is correspondingly darker and sleazier. Moon’s sidekick, no Watson, is milk-guzzling, blood-free giant (golem, perhaps?) with limited conversation and a serious spelling problem (the Somnambulist of the title, who does not deserve his top billing).

Moon’s true Watson, however, is the mysterious and envious narrator of the story. Through this unreliable narrator we follow Moon on a gruesome case of death by defenestration (the window in question being unfortunately at the top of a high tower). Witnesses attest to the presence of a nauseating gray-scaled killer with a sticky gecko fondness for heights.

But there’s more cooking in the cauldron: dominant and homicidal mothers; vengeful criminals from Moon’s past; drug-addicted dead poets; zombies, brain-washing and bad-Christian cults. Not to mention the mysterious origins of Moon’s gigantic sidekick, and an ugly stranger by the name of Thomas Cribb who keeps dropping oracular hints (and appears to live time backwards, for no reason I could figure out). No, we’ve got more, including a crazed counter-intelligence Directorate and a pair of supernatural schoolboys with a taste for bloody mayhem. Oops, did I forget to mention the glowing green glop, and the assassin posing as the bumbling lover?

You might guess from the list above that there’s indeed a bit too much cooking. We don’t end this story with the Sherlock Holmes wannabe proudly explaining how his superior intellect deduced the solution from the scent of Bulgarian roses emanating from the silk kerchief donned by the culprit at 10:15 on the night of the killing.

What we have instead is more like the cooking cauldron exploding into nuclear orbit and unidentifiable splatters. I was intrigued by the book’s first two-thirds. The ending was wilder than I could handle, including the less-than-convincing revelation of the secret narrator’s identity. But we certainly lost all sense of Holmesian redux.

So I can’t say recommended for Sherlock Holmes lovers. If you’re into zombies, cults, bearded ladies and the Moriarty of crime as a classic crazy Frankenstein, however, you’ll find something more to your taste. Enjoy!

Copyright © 2009 by Danielle L. Parker

Home Page