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Issue #129 - May 2006

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Ghoulies and Ghosties

By Cheryl Morgan

Confession of special interest time here, folks. As regular readers will be aware, I have known Kim Newman longer than anyone else in the SF industry. His new book, The Man from the Diogenes Club, is dedicated to Brian Smedley, whom I have known for just as long. In his Afterword, Newman describes how Richard Jeperson and Vanessa first appeared in a play he wrote for a school drama lesson. Brian played the role of Jeperson. Thankfully Brian never took part in any of the Call of Cthulhu games I ran, because I have a sneaking suspicion that Jeperson might have turned up with him. As it is, Jeperson has had a much more interesting life, graduating to become the hero of a fine series of short stories that have something of the air of a 1970ís British supernatural mystery TV series (yes, we did have them, how could you forget?), but also all of the humor, richness of references, and sharp political observation that we have come to expect from Newman.

The Diogenes Club, as I hope most of you know, is the shadowy cabal of talented gentlemen formed by Mycroft Holmes to safeguard the British Empire from ghoulies, ghosties, long-tentacled beasties and things that go Ďslimeí in the night. Notable members have included Charles Beauregard, Thomas Carnacki and Adam Llewellyn de Vere Adamant (címon folks, get with the references game). Other Diogenes stories by Newman have featured Edwin Winthrop and Catriona Kaye. Jeperson is a more recent member of that august body. His world is that of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the latter, a time during which an entire generation of Britons lost all sense of fashion, and a time at which Newman and I were at school and in college, right in the thick of the style storm.

Part of the Jeperson mythos is, as I mentioned above, that pre-Buffy flowing of the supernatural on British TV. (Aside to Neil Gaiman: I really liked Ace of Wands too, though sadly I canít remember much about it now. There is a web site though) I donít know if the US had similar types of series, but I canít imagine that US TV would have allowed a hero anywhere near as foppish as Jeperson. Fortunately, despite his terrible taste in clothes and Sergeant Pepper moustache, he did have some sense of style.

It didnít take detective work to deduce which of the vehicles in the New Scotland Yard car park belonged to Richard Jeperson. It was a silver-grey Rolls-Royce the size of a speed-boat, bonnet shaped like a cathedral nave, body streamlined to break land speed records.

Fred whistled.

"Itís a ShadowShark, you know," Jeperson said, running his fingers across the RR Spirit of Ecstasy symbol. "They only made five. I have three."

Another obvious influence is The Avengers. Newman admits in the Afterword that he wanted Jeperson and Vanessa to have a Steed and Mrs. Peel style relationship. Vanessa fulfills the role perfectly: half sex-symbol, half thoroughly liberated woman, she is every bit the 1970s TV heroine. Not a 21st Century one, of course. She doesnít have her own show, and she never tries to assert control, but at the same time she never quite needs rescuing, even though the men often think that she does.

(By the way, before anyone gets any silly ideas, the only thing that Vanessa and I have in common is the color of our hair.)

There are doubtless a myriad other influences. One thing you quickly learn when reading Newman is that he knows more about books, more about films, more about TV, and quite possibly more about everything, than you do. You could spend all day just looking up the references.

Talking of Ďlooking upí, there are serious issues for the American reader in approaching this book. The whole Jeperson series is steeped in British culture and British language. Several of the stories first appeared on Sci Fiction. Ellen Datlow immediately saw the problem, but rather than have Newman re-write the material she agreed with him to publish a glossary for the benefit of confused ex-colonials. With hyperlinks, of course, it was very easy. In The Man from the Diogenes Club the glossary is at the back of the book, which isnít quite as convenient, but it is very necessary so Iím pleased Monkey Brain elected to include it. Even so, there are things in the stories that I suspect will mean much more to a British reader than an American one. This, for example:

Beyond the railbed was a panoramic advertising hoarding. A once-glossy, now-weatherworn poster showed a lengthy dole queue and the slogan "Labour isnít working ó Vote Conservative." Over this was daubed "No Future."

I donít think the lack of familiarity with the subject material will impair the enjoyment of non-British readers, but it may mean that they fail to fully appreciate just how clever Newman is being at times.

A good example is the opening story, "The End of the Pier Show". It starts off as a seemingly pointless tale of a copper (policeman) infiltrating a skinhead gang. It quickly turns into a piece of silly shlock horror. And then, as if by magic, it morphs into a beautifully subtle satire about South-Eastern England, about the sort of people who read the Daily Telegraph and think that everything in the country has gone downhill since 1945. Disgusted, of Tunbridge Wells. "You Donít Have to be Mad" is an entertaining race to see how quickly you, the reader, can guess who Mrs. Empty is. I suspect I was shamefully slow, though I didnít have to wait for the end.

Fortunately for US readers, there are some stories whose references are a little closer to home. "Tomorrow Town" is a good example. They might not get the reference about "white heat", but they will certainly warm to the tale of a technologically-based "town of the future" founded by a famous futurologist who is later bludgeoned to death with his own Hugo Award.

The community was funded partially by government research grants and partially by private sources. It was projected that it would soon be a profitable concern, with monies pouring in from scientific wonders developed by the visioneers of the new technomeritocracy. The Foundation, which had proposed the "Town of 2000" experiment, was a think tank, and academic-industrial coalition dedicated to applying to present-day life lessons learned from contemplating the likely future. Tomorrow Townís two-thousand odd citizen-volunteers ("zenvols") were boffins, engineers, social visionaries, health-food cranks and science fiction fans.

Another tale that may travel well, if only because of the fact that EastEnders is freely available on BBC America, is "The Serial Murders". This story is based around a TV soap opera called The Northern Barstows. It is a sort of Dallas of Oop North. Instead of being oil millionaires, the Barstowsí fortune has come from dour Northern industry. Like some Monty Python character, Mavis Barstow, the diamond-bedecked star of the series, is always talking about "when I were a lass." Life was Ďard then. That it were. Eee, eck. Pint oí Griddles, please.

The connection, for Jeperson, is that the show has a habit of including characters who are thinly disguised versions of famous people. Celebrities who happen to die horribly in exactly the same way that their analogs on screen die, at the same time as the program is being broadcast.

What Newman is doing, of course, is comment on Britainís obsession with soap operas, and the fact that for many people in Britain characters in soap operas are more real than their neighbors. He even rubs the point in by including a character who is a professor of media studies at Brighton University who is studying the impact of the program on the national psyche. (Not that I think they called it "media studies" back then, but you get the idea.)

Jeperson, of course, doesnít think much of popular culture.

Richard sensed another trend in the making, another step downstairs. From now on, Coronation Street would get more newspaper coverage than coronations, Harold Steptoe would be more newsworthy than Harold Wilson, and the doings of Barstow and Company would be followed more intently than those of Barclayís Bank. Eventually, there would only be television. More and more of it, expanding to fill the unused spaces in the general consciousness.

Goodness only knows what he would have made of the Internet.

And that, of course, is the problem for Jeperson. Like Beauregard and Winthrop, he is a very much a character of his time. Margaret Thatcher was a serious shock to the system, not only for him, but for the entire Diogenes Club. These days Jepersonís place has probably been taken by some Charlie Stross-like geek who investigates paranormal phenomena in computer networks. He probably knows Bob Howard very well. Maybe Newman has already written about him. Richard Jeperson, however, is a magnificent period piece, a reminder of a time that seems so silly and innocent in retrospect.

And yet, arenít paranormal detectives back in fashion? Doesnít Jeperson have a lot of experience of working with talented women? His magnificent Charles I hair has probably mostly fallen out and greyed by now, but perhaps it is time for him come out of retirement. There are young agents to be trained. New evils to be fought. He could have a whole string of proto-Buffys at his command. We could call it Richardís Angels.

No, stop it Cheryl! Bad Cheryl!

Besides, Newman has already brought him back. The final story in the book, "Swellhead", is set in 2004. Jeperson is an old man, and all the poor boy gets as an assistant is a young blonde Detective Sergeant and a brief guest appearance by Kylie Minogue. Not a nubile teenage witch or vampire slayer in sight.

(Incidentally, the contrast between Vanessa and DS Stacy Cotterill is significant. Vanessa, despite being very capable and extremely deadly, is always treated as a sex object by the men in the stories. She is, after all, only The Assistant. Cotterill is someone with rank and authority, and consequently several of the men in the story feel the need to constantly belittle and humiliate her. Newman has got the difference in attitudes between the 1970ís and now down perfectly.)

But to get back to coming up with bad ideas, thatís the trouble with Newman: reading his books makes you think of things like that. They are cleverly written, often hilarious, and in places exceptionally subtle. But they are also about remembering things, about taking something silly that you know and love and doing something utterly brilliant with it. Something like The Man from the Diogenes Club.

One last point: the book has an absolutely perfect John Picacio cover. It captures the mood of the books magnificently.

The Man from the Diogenes Club - Kim Newman - Monkey Brain - trade paperback

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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