In Victorian Liverpool, the Transatlantic Span, a bridge connecting England to New York, looms over the city, a hulking monument to human excellence and arrogance. As crews scramble to complete the bridge in time for Her Majesty’s dedication ceremony, a sinister plot boils to the surface with the discovery of a corpse with its face cut off on the banks of the River Mersey. Inspector Langton, despondent over the death of his wife Sarah a few months prior, is assigned the case. At first, Langton thinks he could use the case both as a distraction from mourning his wife as well as a way to get back in his Chief’s good graces for his recent poor performance, but it quickly becomes clear that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.
The dead man isn’t just some docker or Span security guard, but a Boer Irregular. Langton suffered the horrors of the Boer War first hand, and fears there might be a conspiracy afoot to assassinate the Queen or, at the very least, destroy the Span. As the bodies pile up and the list of suspects grows, a mysterious figure known only as Doktor Glass emerges as the Professor Moriarty to Langton’s Sherlock Holmes. Doktor Glass is the fulcrum around which all the seemingly unconnected murders revolve, and he may even be involved in Sarah’s untimely demise.
There are a lot of intriguing things that set this book apart from its contemporaries, the most noticeable being its location. Despite what the cover blurb says, Doktor Glass is set in late 19th century Liverpool, not London, and that makes for a nifty change. Victorian London has been done to death. Liverpool was a working Northern town, long ignored by the London elite for any reason other than shipping and transport. Setting the scene there heightens the import of the Queen’s visit, and also means the coppers there will have to rely on their own wits and pluck rather than the endless coffers of the royal treasury and its network of contacts.
Brennan also does a great job introducing some great concepts, especially the Span and the soul-stealing Jar Boys. The only real problem is that beyond a cursory description of both, they aren’t ever really dealt with. Everyone talks about the Span a great deal, but for something that will have such an enormous effect on the future of the world, it is surprisingly unimportant to the story. You could really have anything towering and metallic in its place and get the same end result. Which is a shame because a train bridge crossing the Atlantic is such a cool idea. How long would the ride last? Are the trains set up like a horizontal version of a steamer, or are there separate trains for different classes? Are there multiple rails to allow for constant traffic? What happens when there’s a storm over the Atlantic? How do they do repairs? Are there stations where you can alight if you want to return from whence you came? Who funded such extravagance? Why build the bridge in Liverpool and New York City rather than the much closer points of Ireland and Canada?
Brennan delves more deeply into the Jar Boys and their contraption to extricate souls from bodies, but not by much. Again, they serve more as a way to further complicate the plot than to stand on their own. I can’t really get into it in more detail without spoiling the plot, but suffice it to say I wish there had been a skosh more showing than telling.
I willingly admit that I am addicted to procedurals. I consume network television cop shows like others do reality TV: obsessively, relentlessly, and in pathetically large quantities. Law and Order, Hawaii Five-0, Quincy, Homicide, Colombo, Elementary, you name a cop show and I’ll watch a weekend marathon of it. Doktor Glass reminds me less of a typical mystery novel and more like a major network cop show; think Criminal Minds rather than the Dresden Files.
Everything that happens in 300 pages could easily take place in a one hour police drama, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means a lot of things aren’t touched on as much as they would be if the book were written in a more traditional style, but it also means getting to play along with the hero as they try to untangle the mystery. There’s no first person narrative, no main characters having secret conversations that the audience isn’t privy to, and no omniscient voice waxing rhapsodic. (It also means the mystery is a bit on the light side, and anyone with a passing familiarity with any cop show of the last ten years will probably catch on to the Big Bad pretty early.)
While the steampunk—and, by extension, the fantasy elements—are much more of an undercurrent rather than a main genre in Doktor Glass, the story is well-written, entertaining, and engrossing. The middle sags a bit, but the first and last 100 or so pages are full of cliffhangers that make it hard to put down.
Alex Brown is an archivist, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.