The Man from the Diogenes Club by Kim Newman
Published by Monkeybrain Books, June 2006
Review by Hobbit.
Though I suspected it already, reading this book I realised that Kim Newman is a clever man. For those who are not aware, Kim is a writer (see, for example, Anno Dracula, 1992) as well as a UK TV and media critic and was a Hugo co-Nominee for his Speech at the Hugo Awards at Glasgow in 2005.
Kim’s latest collection of eight stories, dating from 1997 until the last previously unpublished story, uses an impressive knowledge to create a cornucopia of delights, and one that is very difficult to simply describe.
His style of metafiction skilfully combines elements of British culture from the last four decades with things-that-are-not-real. Thus, fictional figures such as Adam Adamant (a BBC TV character from the 1960’s), Carnacki the Ghost Finder (from William Hope Hodgson’s writings) and Mycroft Holmes (the brother of Sherlock) are mentioned alongside real people like Fenella Fielding, Raymond Baxter, Margaret Thatcher, Tommy Steele, Max Bygraves and Ken Dodd.
The book is ingeniously set in an alternative British history from the late 1960’s through to the early 2000’s. It concerns itself with Richard Jeperson, psychic investigator for The Diogenes Club, a top secret government agency – as put in the book ‘the least publicised of Britain’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ – whose role is non-political, yet designed to solve all those unusual cases the normal forces of justice are incapable of solving. Aiding Richard in his work is Fred Regent, a policeman assigned to the club and his lovely assistant and Emma-Peel-like, Vanessa, with a mysterious past.
Think The Avengers meets James Bond meets Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius, with the X-Files and Austin Powers thrown in, and you’ll get a little towards it.
The stories are arranged in a roughly chronological order, from the first meeting of Fred in The End of the Pier Show, through to Swellhead in the early 21st century. Along the way, Newman clearly has a lot of fun with different aspects of his own background and interests.
The End of the Pier Show is a short horror story, which introduces Fred to the Diogenes Club. You Don’t Have to be Mad is Newman’s take on ‘the secret laboratory’ in an Avengers-style. Tomorrow Town is a murder mystery set in a world of the unfulfilled utopian future, to me a little reminiscent of the Futurama episode where they visit The World of Tomorrow, a story of the future gone wrong. Egyptian Avenue is Newman’s take on Egyptiana and The Mummy; Soho Golem takes place in the seedy world of sleaze and gangsterism in 1970’s London. The Serial Murders is a satirical story using British Soap Operas as a backdrop to something a lot more sinister, whereas The Man Who Got Off the Ghost Train is a ghost story that deals with Richard and Vanessa’s mysterious past. Lastly, Swellhead, especially written for this book, is Newman’s take on the role of the superspy, which reminded me of James Bond, (particularly You Only Live Twice) with an element of Austin Powers thrown in.
Sheer fun, and using Kim’s wealth of 1960
’s, 1970 ’s and 80 ’s culture, not to mention lirttle digs at present culture – 1970 ’s Hammer horror movies, pornography, fashion, UK TV, pulp fiction – all are mentioned here in this alternate UK. Richard’s fashion sense is so out of touch with what is around him that Kim has fun describing past trends – kaftans, banana boots and velvet jackets.
Even the book title is a literary reference: as Kim explains in the book’s Afterword, The Diogenes Club was first mentioned in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, The Greek Interpreter, although in rather typically Newman fashion, its importance and origin here is more attributed to Billy Wilder and IAL Diamond in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes through Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft. Kim knows all this and uses it to good effect, mixing in characters from his own stories with others fictional and non-fictional. (Anyone who recognises Varno Zhoule as a real person gets extra bonus points!)
However, they are a series of stories that have to be read, rather than just described. Kim’s skill at throwing in cult details as part of the plot without detracting from the narrative make this book a cut above a simple sixties pastiche. For me, part of the fun was spotting all the references. For others perhaps this self-reverential retrofantasy may not be to their tastes, it being a little too self-aware.
Nonetheless, if the mere mention of words and paraphernalia like Thunderbirds, Max Bygraves, Smarties, Swan Vestas, Jason King, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Pan’s People, Coronation Street, Dad’s Army, and Doctor Who (for whom Kim has written, incidentally) bring back memories, or at least give you a flavour of, UK life in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, then this book is one for you. This did make me wonder a little about how much of this will translate to other countries, though the stories can be enjoyed without necessarily picking up all the references. And for those of you who don’t get all the references, (including me!) there’s a 23 page glossary at the back.
Though the book is fun, what is also subtle is the way that the main characters are portrayed. There are subtleties that belie the enthusiasm of the material.
Swellhead, for example, though at first glance a James Bondian pastiche, works on another level as it also deals sympathetically with the political disinterest in and closure of the Club, the semiretirement of Richard as well as a passing on of responsibility from Richard and his colleagues to a new generation.
At the same time, there are some nightmarish moments, in a Hammer Horror or Tales of the Unexpected type way, which will not be for everyone. In The Man Who Got Off the Ghost Train (my favourite story) there are some surreal, even Lovecraftian moments, for which Kim can be proud.
Overall, a deceptively lighter read, which works on a number of levels. Monkeybrain Books should be applauded for this unusual collection. Recommended.
Hobbit, September 2006