Langdon St. Ives returns in The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs, James P. Blaylock’s latest Langdon St. Ives Adventure.
St. Ives is described as “the greatest, if largely unheralded, explorer and scientist in the Western World … piecing together a magnetic engine for a voyage to the moon.” Unfortunately, the premise of The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs is less ambitious than its protagonist. Although our heroes are explorers and scientists, they do little exploring here. In fact, they don’t even leave England. Worse, there is little mention of magnetic engines or steam engines, though an emerald’s power has a slight impact on the plot.
The adventure begins with an outbreak of madness at the Explorer’s Club, but don’t expect to see mad explorers. Instead, Tubby Frobisher, one of St. Ives’ colleagues, confesses that he sang “The Sorrows of Old Bailey,” which we should assume sounded dreadful but feels like a tease rather than an actual joke. Surely Blaylock could have done more with a collection of mad explorers in a steampunk universe. Ultimately, it’s enough to get St. Ives and his chronicler Jack Owlesby to put aside their kidney pie so that they can track down their dreaded nemesis, Dr. Ignacio Narbondo.
Hopefully this all sounds familiar because Blaylock relies on our awareness of archetypal characters to propel his plot. There is little time spent outlining why St. Ives and his assistant should leave their jam roly-poly, perhaps because the reader is expected to understand that this is simply what characters based on Sherlock Holmes should do. If St. Ives is a nod to Sherlock Holmes and Owlesby a nod to Watson, Dr. Ignacio Narbondo is our Moriarty. Owlesby describes him as “the sort of evil genius whose machinations are carried out by men easily manipulated by greed or fear. He was gnome-like in feature.” We can likewise take his motivations, his defeat and his eventual escape for granted.
Instead of plotting, characterization or setting, Blaylock has focused on tone and voice, giving The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs the feel of a pastiche. J. K. Potter’s illustrations do a good job of introducing a wry tone early, and his representations of Dr. Narbondo are actually quite funny. However, although a pastiche will imitate other works, it still needs to do something with its allusions and our expectations. Sadly, The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs rarely manages more than a few good jokes.