Johannes Cabal the Detective is the second book about the eponymous necromancer. I read the first book, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, at the beginning of this year, and was enormously enamoured with the bitingly sarcastic gentleman in question. In fact, it has remained my number one read of 2010 despite fierce competition from other titles, and so I was almost nervous about picking up this second novel about Johannes Cabal in case it did not live up to the first.
I am pleased to report that Johannes Cabal the Detective is just as darkly funny, original and snarky as the first novel in the series. In this book Cabal begins the tale in a prison, following the aborted theft of a rather nasty little book. Through foul means and not a little luck, he finds himself aboard an airship — the Princess Hortense — as she flies her maiden voyage between Mirkarvia and Katamenia. As is usual with Cabal, what should have been a peaceful flight turns into a murder mystery, and he is caught in the middle of it, trying to piece together all the clues to discover whodunit. Accompanied by Leonie Barrow (a character from the first novel), Cabal is caught in a race against time. If he doesn’t discover the culprit, then he might very well become the next victim.
By far the strongest element of the novel is Johannes Cabal himself — a complicated, scientifically-minded, dark-hearted man. I equate him somewhat to Basil Fawlty from the Fawlty Towers series (those of you who don’t know of this, pick up the TV series on DVD and delight in the bizarre English humour of it all) — Basil is enormously dislikable, bitingly sarcastic and always doing something that will benefit himself; and yet you find yourself sympathising with him when his schemes go awry and generally cheering him on. Exactly the same could be said about Johannes Cabal. His dialogue carries the story along, and his various encounters with the other members of the crew are hilarious and uncomfortable by turn. Without Cabal this book would be merely an amusing mystery novel; with him included, it is elevated to a comedic fantasy classic.
Because of the nature of the novel — a murder mystery — we encounter a number of other secondary characters who do remain fairly two-dimensional. Howard does attempt to lift them above being merely props to the plot, but all bar Leonie Barrow (who sparkles thanks to her common sense and an ability to make Cabal feel uncomfortable) feel rather hollow.
I mentioned the noir humour of the novel — as well as the main bulk of the story, we are handed other gems, such as diagrams of the airships and entomoptors complete with excitable comments (as though from the pages of a boy’s magazine) and exam questions such as the following:
Read the following brief description of the Second Gallician Conflict, its results and ramifications, and then answer the questions that follow it.
- In what year did Mirkarvia invade Senza?
- i) With hindsight, what was Dulcis III’s most serious error?
ii) And without hindsight?
- Discuss any two of the following statements:
i) Mirkarvia behaved like a right bunch of bastards.
ii) Polorus behaved like a right bunch of bastards.
iii) All countries behave like a right bunch of bastards.
- Write a political treatise — not to exceed 250,000 words or 500 sides, whichever is less — detailing your solution to stabilising relations in the region, military force above brigade level is not permitted, nor is divine intervention.”
If the above extract of rather absurd humour appeals to you, then you will delight in the continual flashes of comedy that anchor this novel.
My slight complaint from the first novel in the series was that the world-building was slim to non-existent. This is addressed admirably in Johannes Cabal the Detective. We are introduced to the states of Mirkarvia and Senza, and a petty political back story is laid out for us. I do wonder how these states connect to the location we encountered in Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, however! Jonathan L. Howard does succeed in developing a strong steampunk feel to the series, which builds on the presence of the carnival locomotive from the first novel.
Happily, this novel is relatively standalone. Enough details are passed out about the first novel to give the reader a good indication of events that occurred, and it is not necessary to have read that book to read Johannes Cabal the Detective.
Howard is quietly going about the business of presenting a character who feels iconic right from the very first moment he steps onto the page. Johannes Cabal the Detective is a triumph of dark murder mystery combined with steampunk flair. Add more than a dash of laugh-out-loud funny moments and you have a novel that builds on the success of the first. I was kept awake long into the night feverishly turning the pages of this book, and would recommend it highly.