Can you name a famous pair of fictional detectives? Sure you can.
Frank and Joe Hardy.
Some storytellers give the chore of sleuthing to pairs. No single detective can figure everything out, and a mythic way of viewing such pairs — the reason why this is discussed here and not in Sarah Weinman's Dark Passages column — is that you can treat such duos as embodying the yin-yang, that ancient concept of dualism handed down to us by Taoist philosophy.
That familiar image of a circle formed by two swirling black and white shapes is everywhere in pop culture: fashion and clothing designs, furniture, cartoons and manga comics. A mistaken assumption is that yin-yang symbolizes good versus evil (especially because of the colors) but that's not it. The concept of yin-yang suggests how, in the natural world, opposing forces fit together to form an essential whole.
Such complementary forces are what some detective pairs are all about. Dr. Watson, for instance, provides the emotional balance to Holmes' cool, clinical ways; Blomkvist winces at Salander's unethical methods for gathering information (even though he's still glad she does it).
And in the case of Newbury and Hobbes, the detective pair at the center of George Mann's "The Osiris Ritual" (Tor Books: 320 pp., $24.99), such different temperaments also work best together. This is the second in a projected series of nine crime novels set in a Victorian London transformed by steampunk technology.
Sir Maurice Newbury is a special agent of the British Crown with a unique expertise in primitive anthropology and the occult — something highly useful in a London infected by ghoulish revenants as automata-driven airships sail the skies. In his mid-30s, Newbury is ably assisted by Miss Veronica Hobbes. Though young and maidenly pretty, she's hardly steampunk arm candy: In fact, she's a gifted investigator, though she sometimes plunges a little too recklessly into situations where Newbury exercises caution.
Mann lays out a variety of puzzles for them: the murder of Lord Henry Winthrop, an explorer who discovered a mysterious Egyptian mummy; a magician in a decrepit London theatre who may be responsible for the disappearance of several women; and the hunt for a strange rogue British agent who's said to be more robot than human.
You expect that the thread running through these pieces will eventually be pulled tight. It is. Mann's writing feels more assured here than in last year's "The Affinity Bridge" which first introduced us to the pair. In that novel the plotting felt strained, a little heavy as he set up his imagined world, while the pacing of "The Osiris Ritual" is fluid and engaging as Mann moves nimbly among storylines. He paints his characters in vivid, unforgettable strokes, especially the more ominous ones. Consider this glimpse of that rogue agent, a man once named Ashford, whose ravaged body is sustained by primitive machinery:
Ashford turned to glare at Newbury as he ran, and Newbury caught his first real glimpse of the man's face. It was an appalling sight. Ashford's flesh was grey and necrotic, peeling away around the dark pits of his eye sockets, into which two bizarre mechanical devices had been inserted to replace his eyes… The exposed skin of his chest was … puckered around a large glass porthole that filled the space where his ribcage had once resided. In the murky depths it revealed, Newbury could see the grey muscle of the man's heart beating in time with a flickering electrical charge that shocked it at intervals.
What a way to live.
Our culture's obsession with longevity might seem extreme, but it pales beside Mann's world. Characters are obsessed with life extension, including Queen Victoria herself. Though the story takes place in 1902, a year after the actual queen's death, in Mann's story she continues to rule the empire and work directly with Newbury thanks to an elaborate apparatus (far less gruesome than Ashford's, though). "Victoria," Mann shrewdly explains, "was empress of half the world and she clearly wasn't going to give it up without a fight."
What does any of this have to do with the murder of Winthrop and the mummy? Newbury learns that the mummy was a priest connected with an Egyptian practice, the Osiris ritual, that was believed to resurrect the dead. For someone like Ashford, then, couldn't such a practice restore his life? Perhaps Winthrop caught this agent in the middle of a search for the spell?
In answering these questions, Newbury and Hobbes function as halves of the same whole. Newbury's an adventurer, but every move is calculated—especially during a perilous rooftop pursuit of Ashford. Hobbes is more impulsive, which leads her to discover what is going on…but it wouldn't hurt if she told people where she was going first. Though her dainty figure packs a surprising wallop, she needs to remember: Always tell people where you are going!
"The Osiris Ritual" provides a pleasing mixture of nostalgia for the familiar Holmesian formula with a fresh, startling vision of the Victorian world as it might have been. If you're intrigued, visit Mann's website and see what he has in store for his duo. Their adventures together are far from over.
OTHER NEW TITLES
Unlike the explorers in Mann's novel who don't understand what their Theban mummy is all about, real-life archeologist Donald P. Ryan has been exceedingly scrupulous in his field work, leading to sensational discoveries, some of which he recounts in "Beneath the Sands of Egypt: Adventures of an Unconventional Archaeologist" (William Morrow: 286 pp., $26.99). Ryan's had the kind of life that some of us dreamt of having when we were nine … and sometimes still dream about. He combs the Valley of the Kings for overlooked tombs and studies desolate, prehistoric sites under a blazing Saharan sun. In 1989 he examined a long-forgotten little tomb in the Valley of the Kings – dismissed as nothing, nearly a century before, by Howard Carter, the discoverer of King Tut's tomb – and determined that it belonged to Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh. Ryan's passion for his work is evident on every page. So is his love for Egypt. His first visits there only whetted his appetite. "I had to return," he tells us. "It wasn't a mere desire, it was a necessity."
How could this column overlook a book called "Siren Land: A Celebration of Life in Southern Italy" (Tauris Parke: 198 pp., $16 paper)? This is a reissue of an early 20th century classic from the golden age of travel-writing: an era when travel-writing meant bringing distant places close and not, as it often is today, finding something outlandish or extreme that hasn't been on YouTube yet. Norman Douglas travels the Bay of Naples, musing on how Greek culture transformed a region planted with "vines and oranges and walnuts" and whose sea is "smooth as a sheet of sapphire." Douglas was 43 when he published this book, his first, in 1911. He ranges around Capri. His phrasing is effortless and his ideas easily meld the mythic with the modern. "It is rather puzzling when one comes to think of it," he writes, "to conceive how the old Sirens passed their time on days of wintry storm. Modern ones would call for cigarettes, Grand Marnier, and a pack of cards, and bid the gale howl itself out." Douglas makes you long for cards, cigarettes and Grand Marnier, even if you're the type of person who doesn't gamble, smoke or drink.
Owchar is Times deputy book editor. The Siren's Call appears at latimes.com/books.