Format: Hardcover, 353pp
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Pub. Date: February 2008
Peopled with the odd and the outstanding, The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes is a macabre tale of crime told by an almost nameless narrator. We are warned from the beginning that this book contains no literary value and that we should not become attached to its characters. Of course the narrator does leave it up to us to decide and in the end you can’t help but be engrossed by the characters and tale that is spun like a web across the page.
Edward Moon is a man who once was the toast of this 19th century London; he is a conjuror, an illusionist of the highest order who also has a reputation for solving the unsolvable crimes that baffle the police. A constant companion to Moon is the Somnambulist, a man with no other name, who is completely silent, communicates via a chalk board and has a passion for milk.
But Moon has seen better times; he is past his prime, hair finally starting to thin and clothes which were once the height of fashion now worn. He belongs to an older time, an older London in which there were great criminal cases to occupy his mind and his theater was full every night as he performed his illusions with the Somnambulist. Those times have passed. A new century has begun and it seems as if Edward Moon will fade into the past, something he is loathe to do.
When there is a mysterious murder Detective Merryweather comes to Moon for help. Moon, desperate and bored, jumps at the chance to prove that he still has his edge and with the Somnambulist in tow he jumps into the investigation. But like any good 19th century sensation novel The Somnambulist is a twisty, curvy tale that leads you in many directions as once. While the answer in the end is constant the question throughout the book changes. The murder is just the tip of the iceberg and soon Moon is trying to uncover a conspiracy that could bring London to her knees.
The characters are unique and wonderful by turns as well as sick and depraved. My favorites are the deadly duo, those cheerful bringers of death and destruction, the Prefects. Yes, from the moment they stabbed someone in the heart with an umbrella and opened it they had my heart. These two men, one large and one small, are always dressed in school boy uniforms and both have permanently cheerful demeanors. You can’t do anything but love, or be slightly sickened by this very imaginative, murderous pair. There are also such standouts like The Fly, Mina a bearded prostitute, a man who lives his life backward, a vagrant that carries a sign which reads “Surely I Am Coming Soon. Revelation 22:20” and an albino civil servant with a penchant for arson.
In the final chapters the narrator is revealed and the story which up until this point was more of a period crime novel with elements of the fantastic becomes complete fantasy. It builds slowly so that once this change finally does happen it makes complete sense and you can’t imagine the story taking any other turn. The Somnambulist is a dark and slightly odd tale that is not to be missed whether you’re a fan of… well anything. This is simply a must read.