cover of The Invaders, issue #13, from Marvel Comics

cover of The Invaders, issue #13, from Marvel Comics

By Nick Owchar

Why do so many monsters live in Victorian London? Was there something toxic in the Thames (Spenser probably wouldn't call it "sweet" if he could have seen it then -- or now) or in the fog that, as the Environmental Protection Agency points out, isn't so quaint as it seemed when Holmes and Watson strode through it?

Whatever the reason, Victorian London is a splendid monster factory -- a place that exerts as strong an influence on writers today as 1940s and '50s noir does. The string of Victorian homages continues: Gerri Brightwell's "The Dark Lantern," Michael Cox's "The Meaning of Night," Stephen Gallagher's "The Kingdom of Bones," David Pirie's "The Night Calls" -- the titles alone make you think that the sun never rose on 19th century London.

When creatures are deprived of light, they grow in the most unusual ways. Consider some of the grotesques in Jonathan Barnes' devilishly bizarre first novel, "The Somnambulist" (William Morrow: 354 pp., $23.95):

* A decomposing criminal known as the Human Fly.

* Barabbas, a master criminal who slithers around in folds of flesh.

* An albino secret agent.

* A pair of argot-speaking murderers dressed as schoolboys.

* A dead Romantic poet re-animated.

* A prostitute whose unusual physical qualities seem more suited to a circus sideshow than to a brothel.

* A time traveler.

Out of place among them is the somewhat straight-arrow Edward Moon, a detective past his prime who now subsists as a conjurer with the Theatre of Marvels, a successful nightly show running in Albion Square near London's East End. Barnes' description of that place evokes a Victorian Ricky Jay and the shabby venues where rival magicians Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden dueled in Christopher Priest's novel "The Prestige."

Moon and his partner are asked by representatives of the Directorate -- a vague, sinister governmental agency -- to uncover the people behind a plot to destroy the city. How have the duo come by their information? From another exotic character, Madame Innocenti, a con artist who seems able to commune with the spirit world.

The reason for so much strangeness seems explained by an aristocratic lady who asks Moon to find her husband: "[O]ne finds one rather grows out of detective stories, doesn't one?"

It's hard not to suspect this is why Barnes presents characters so bizarre -- to rescue an otherwise familiar, slightly tedious plot. I've saved the story's most enigmatic character for last: Moon's companion, a giant known as the Somnambulist. Something of his strange identity comes to us in an early, startling scene at the Theatre. The rousing climax of Moon's show involves plunging swords into the Somnambulist's body. Barnes describes it thus:

"Under the pitiless gaze of the lights and in full view of the crowd, he plunged the blade deep into the Somnambulist's chest. The tip entered the giant's body with a slippery, sucking sound before emerging seconds later, with stomach-churning inevitability, from the centre of his back. The Somnambulist did not so much as blink in response."

Then more swords are stabbed into him -- into his neck, his chest, his thigh, his groin.

What is his response?

"Like a bored commuter waiting for his train, the Somnambulist yawned in response."