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The Vesuvius Club...

Review by Tara Alexander and Sarah Chaney


The press release professes it to be set in the 1890s – indeed, Amazon (among other places) is still loudly proclaiming this fact. And so the most important thing to clear up straight away is: it’s not.

Still, these mistaken booksellers could easily be forgiven – were it not for the (albeit numerous) references to the King, and a minor aside to the first few years of the new century, the book could very well have been set in the last decade of Old Queen Vic’s reign. Our hero, Lucifer Box, you see, belongs part and parcel to the late Victorian age, where seedy clubs jostled with the moralising of social reformists, and time had not as yet allowed the Criminal Law Amendment Act to have much impact on the brothels it set out to destroy. Where buttonholes were of the utmost importance and the East End a menace rather than an area for reform, for the Boer War had not yet pointed out how much the Empire might actually need the lower classes to be well-nourished in order to, well, fight!

And so Lucifer Box seems to live in a kind of vacuum, where even the most godawful puns are Victorian (fan de cycle – geddit??) and nothing whatsoever appears to have happened since the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895. Why on earth Mr Gatiss didn’t just give in and set the damn book in the same year I’ll never understand. Maybe he thought Sherlock Holmes, whose most interesting cases were mainly pre 1900, would rather steal dear Lucifer’s thunder (not that this stops him borrowing shamelessly from the Adventure of the Devil’s Foot) – but although both are practiced housebreakers, only Mr Box is an assassin. Or maybe he felt that he’d already created the perfect parody of this era in the Chinnery section of the League of Gentlemen’s Christmas Special”, and wanted instead to portray Lucifer’s endeavours to be a gentleman in the early years of a new century, perhaps feeling a certain affinity for this, 100 years later.

So, there you have it. Lucifer Box: socialite, aesthete, sometime artist and, after falling foul of Mr Labouchère in a rather painful incident off the Bow Road, part of His Majesty’s Secret Service. Given his mission at the start of the book by the rather irritatingly named Joshua Reynolds (a joke must consist of more than simply re-using a real person’s name and the Royal Academy of Arts, surely? At least Bella Pok is almost amusing…), Lucifer quips, puns (and sleeps) his way from London to Naples.

But I hope my words thus far haven’t been too damning. There are a few things both myself - and you, dear reader – should remember. The Vesuvius Club is a work of fiction, not a treatise on early 20th Century colloquialisms, so we’ll ignore the over-use of the word “Blighty” by characters who have probably never been to India.

It is true that Gatiss wears his influences on his sleeve and the book is chock full of them. One can see shades of his favourite James Bond (Dr No) and Doctor Who (The Green Death), amongst the throwaway references to artists and historical figures who are contemporary to Mr Box. But the most important thing to remember is that the novel is great fun. The adventure is gripping, in a cheerfully exaggerated Boy’s Own fashion greatly reminiscent of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman – no bad thing. The Vesuvius Club is more than just another tongue in cheek “Chinnery Jackanory” story, even if it may seem like that at first. It is well crafted, fast-paced and ribald. And, while Lucifer’s self-congratulatory witticisms may grate a little initially, once he finds someone to temper his behaviour with a little insolence (the delightful, and very blue eyed, young Charlie Jackpot), he becomes eminently likeable. Even if historical adventure novels aren’t your glass of tea, this one is heartily recommended.

And, after all, there is nothing more attractive than a man in top hat and tails…



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