David Barnett’s novel, ‘Gideon Smith And The Mechanical Girl’ is a Victorian melodrama, a horror story and a tale of revenge which contains creatures from the deep, vampires, grave-robbers and buried treasure. Although a small book in appearance, the pages contain a wealth of detail that has been difficult to condense without losing much of the plot as well.
The year is 1890 and we are in Sandsend, a provincial town in Yorkshire. Here we meet Gideon Smith, at home recuperating from an accident aboard a fishing trawler, the Cold Drake. His father and captain, Arthur Smith, takes the ship and crew out to sea on a foul, mist-shrouded morning, cast their nets and wait for the cod to arrive. Something else arrives instead. Foul, unhuman creatures that swarm over the ship and kill everyone on board.
Gideon is a rather bookish-young lad and an avid reader of The True Stories Of Adventurer Captain Lucian Trigger, published in a monthly magazine, The Illustrated London Argus. Gideon’s plan is to contact the head office in London for help. The receptionist refuses to pass on Trigger’s private phone number, assuming Gideon to be just another of his fans. Quite understandable to you or me, but completely baffling to poor naive Gideon, even though he stressed it was of the utmost importance.
There was a Russian schooner heading dangerously close to Tate Hill Beach with no one on deck, that runs aground and several men clamber aboard to find out what happened to the crew when a large shaggy black dog appears on deck, leaps onto the sand and runs away down a side street.
While queuing to use the telephone, Gideon speaks to the man in front, Abraham Stoker, who is in Whitby working on a book. Stoker becomes interested in the noises at Lyme Bank that Gideon had spoken of. Whilst Gideon travels to London to seek the aid of Captain Trigger, Stoker thinks he will find Count Dracula hiding in Whitby. Instead, he finds Countess Dracula, Elizabeth Bathory, a beautiful, self-assured woman who requests his help to track down creatures called the Children of Hequet and they travel to London later.
Gideon paid passage on the mail coach to London, except, the driver dropped him miles from the city centre. After walking for miles, Gideon comes to a large mansion and bangs heavily on the main door and meets the caretaker, Crowe, who lets him in. This is the home of Herman Einstein. Over an evening meal, Crowe talks about Old Bob the lawnmower man, saying he was one of the professor’s automatons and also a dancer called Maria, who he takes great delight in showing off. Waking up early the next morning, Gideon finds Maria sitting alone, in a bare stone chamber and realises this is a person and decides to rescue her.
It is at this point that another person enters the story. Aloysius Bent, writer for the Argus. The offices of The Illustrated London Argus are on the second floor of the building housing The London Newspaper and Magazine Publishing Company. Gideon and Maria are at the reception arguing. Coming downstairs, Bent hears Gideon talking and, sensing a story, takes them round to see Trigger, who thinks they have news of his companion, John Reed, who went missing in Alexandria, over a year ago.
Gideon had only travelled to London to speak to Trigger in person and convince him to come to Sandsend and figure out the disappearance of his father and the Crew of the Cold Drake. Problem is, Trigger is not the adventurer, Reed is. Plus, while Stoker and Bathory were investigating the mysterious noises at Lyme Bank, they found not only evidence that the Children of Hequet had been there but also the remains of several bodies, among these remains they found the policeman’s helmet and the jet pendant that Gideon had given his father as a good luck symbol. There was now no point in Gideon going back to Sandsend on his own but, if he went with Trigger and the others to Egypt, he could at least avenge his father’s death.
Trigger is fed up waiting for news and decides to finance an expedition to Egypt in search of Reed. Gideon and the others will travel with him and search for the Children of Hequet. The aerostat journey there is quite eventful, as is the search for John Reed. This involves Maria being kidnapped before they have even left London and Bram Stoker dying in an Egyptian tomb, before they can get back to London and safety. I don’t want to say anymore in case I give away too much detail.
These early chapters set the scene well, with period details of horse-drawn carriages, the use of gaslight, dirigibles for air flight, a plausible reason for Stoker being in Whitby and for them going their separate ways and meeting up again later in the story. I found it fascinating the way Barnett mixes real authors and their fantastical characters, Stoker and vampires for example. He makes it all sound real and quite plausible, rather than just a fun piece of hokum.
The story has very humble origins but becomes more and more complex, as the story moves from Sandsend to Whitby to London to Egypt, with all manner of weird characters and adventures along the way. Needless to say, I became totally immersed in the world of 1890 as I followed Gideon’s progress as he developed from a shy, rather bookish young lad, into a self-confident adventurous young man, who fell in love with a beautiful woman. This was a richly detailed engrossing story with a good mix of dialogue and descriptive scene setting.
An interesting page-turner of a book, it is a treasure hunt, full of clues to collect and put together, to form different parts of a larger picture. You could call this a steampunk novel but it is also a murder mystery. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about their, turning page after page in quick succession, finding it difficult to put the book down.
(pub: TOR/Forge. 351 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $14.99 (US). $16.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-3453-4)