Within just a few short chapters it becomes clear that there’s a lot going on in George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge. You are immediately thrown into the fog-bound streets of London as the British Empire pulls itself into the 20th Century. Steam-powered cabs splutter down grimy cobblestones, while clockwork automatons service the homes and offices of professional types. The world is on a brink of a technological revolution and yet not all is well.
First, there is the sickening revenant plague that is transforming the lower classes into a shuffling breed of blood-thirsty cannibals. And if the fear of meeting a zombie in a back alley isn’t enough to keep you tucked up at night, a rather peculiar serial killer is loose in Whitechapel. Reports insist that the murderer is a phantom policemen, but that can’t be right, can it?
Sir Maurice Newbury, anthropologist and gentleman secret agent, has other concerns – namely the airship crash in Finsbury Park which has left 50 dead and the Crown with an embarrassment on their royal hands. What brought the doomed dirigible down and where is its mechanical pilot?
As the action unfolds it soon becomes clear that these apparently unconnected strands are all closely interwoven. The result is a riveting adventure which isn’t ashamed to wear its influences on its well-groomed sleeve. Newbury, like a certain Baker Street detective, is often amazed that witnesses miss the most obvious clues at the scene of a crime and – again like Mr Holmes – is fond of a little chemical distraction from time to time – in this case, some not-so-healthy helpings of Laudanum. At first, I did wonder if there was a need for Sir Maurice to also employ a Scottish housekeeper, but such allusions help build Mann’s world. We’re on familiar ground and the shorthand of known tropes guides you skillfully into this very particular vision of Victorian London.
This is not to say that Mann doesn’t show originality and innovation. His characterisation of Newbury’s female sidekick, Veronica Hobbes, is nothing short of superb. Her relationship with Sir Maurice, while certainly setting up a ‘will-they won’t they?’ dynamic for future stories, perfectly punctures the prejudices of the period. Veronica is the book’s greatest triumph – ballsy with out being a ball-breaker and courageous with losing her more ladylike sensibilities.
The Affinity Bridge is the first of hopefully many Newbury and Hobbes investigations and while Mann’s melodrama is beautifully self-contained, the author is obviously setting out his stall for further adventures. Some unresolved questions hang in the air after the last page is turned. Where will Sir Maurice’s fascination with the black arts take him? What fate awaits Veronica’s psychic sister? And just what are Queen Victoria’s plans for the Empire?
I for one look forward to finding out.
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