You may recall a wonderful story about a wealthy young man in New York in the days before World War II, a man who has a double identity as a crime fighter. He doesn’t wear a disguise, per se, but he does wear a piece of equipment on his face that serves as one even as it aids him in his work. His pretty girlfriend is pretty darned brainy herself, and figures out the existence of his second life pretty quickly.
No, that story isn’t Ghosts of Manhattan, though you might be forgiven for thinking so, given how derivative the novel is of the Vertigo comic to which I’m referring, Sandman Mystery Theater. The Sandman, Wesley Dodds, is a fully-developed character, while The Ghost, Gabriel Cross, is a paper doll one can dress in night goggles or a tuxedo, having little personality — and that which he does have is attributable to an odd experience in World War I that is never fully explained. Dodds’s girlfriend, Dian Belmont, is similarly a much more complete individual than is the object of Cross’s affection, Celeste, about whom we learn almost nothing except that she is a beautiful nightclub singer. Manhattan itself is more fully realized in Sandman Mystery Theater; in Ghosts of Manhattan, Manhattan might as well be Chicago or Minneapolis for all the sense of place we’re given.
These shortcomings are essentially structural; but there are serious problems with the writing on the level of the individual sentence or phrase as well. In fact, the writing is what I object to most about this book: it’s terrible. For instance:
The snow of the previous evening had begun to melt, reducing into a miserable gray slush that sloshed about the Ghost’s ankles as he walked. Cars hissed by, spraying gobbets of the stuff into the air, their wheels splashing in the newly formed rivers that ran along the gutters in glistening rivulets.
“Glistening rivulets”? You’ve got to be kidding me. Numerous odd phrases like that jolt the reader out of the story (for example, there’s a fellow who “grinned profusely”); they are followed by clichés (a woman “langorously smok[es] an unfiltered cigarette”; a bad guy says, “[H]e’ll make a rather interesting morsel for our visitor”). No one just smiles; “a wide grin split[s] his face.” And, of course, the bad guy has a “sinister, silky voice.” If Ghosts of Manhattan were a parody, I might be chuckling at this bad prose, but there is no evidence that this novel is intended as such. I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to take it seriously, and that’s just about impossible.
The steampunkishness of Ghosts of Manhattan is really all it’s got going for it. The contraptions Mann introduces are generally interesting, even if sometimes they seem thrown in simply for the sake of adding a bit of strangeness rather than because there’s a genuine need for them. A gun that shoots flechettes instead of bullets, for instance, seems rather silly and even cruel before an enemy comes along on which bullets have no effect. On the other hand, I like the notion of planes taking off with rockets instead of after a long buildup of speed on a runway, and cars that run on coal instead of oil. Of course there are zeppelins; is there a single steampunk novel that doesn’t include these airships?
So we’ve got noir, and we’ve got steampunk. Anything else we can throw into this stew? Maybe a Lovecraftian monster or two? That’s the ticket! A touch of Lovecraft might actually work if Mann had bothered to prepare the way for this development, but it feels rather like an adnihilo ex machina as used here.
Ghosts of Manhattan is the first in a series. Maybe the next one will be better. One can always hope.