The Death Collector
Attitude: Take Care → Unobjectionable
In Brief: Some grotesque scenes involving reanimation of men and animals by mechanical means. A fraudulent séance with a serious element. Possibly lethal violence used in self-defence by the protagonists.
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Published in: 2006
Age Range: Young Teens
Period: Late 19th C
Setting: Victorian London
- George Archer is a young man working behind-the-scenes at the British Museum. He has to use his ingenuity and his skill at clockwork devices to protect himself and his friends.
- Liz Oldfield is the resourceful 18-year-old daughter of an elderly clergyman, an aspiring actress against her father's wishes, and attracted to George Archer.
- Eddie Hopkins is a homeless and loosely honourable 14-year-old pickpocket, caught but released by Liz after he steals her father's wallet.
- Sir William Protheroe is the slightly mysterious head of the Department of Unclassified Artefacts at the British Museum. He combines scientific curiosity with physical resourcefulness.
- Augustus Lorimore is a rich and unscrupulous dabbler in science with a couple of heavies as his servants.
George Archer finds himself under attack from a group who want the information in a diary of which he possesses the only remaining fragment. Liz Archer and Eddie Hopkins are drawn into the matter when Eddie steals the wallet which Liz then retrieves. They team up with Sir William Protheroe to determine who is behind the mysterious reanimation of one of George's British Museum colleagues, recently dead, and why Lorimore is so determined to get hold of Sir Henry Glick's diaries.
In many respects, this book is a slightly grown-up version of the author's Invisible Detective series. Set in the perennially-appealing Victorian London, and making use of that era's endearing combination of engineering ingenuity, colourful characters and atmospheric fogs. The main characters are only slightly older than their counterparts in the other series and it — so far — lacks the split-time device but the effect is very similar. If you liked that series you'll probably like this, and you won't need to be very much older, either, as the level of vocabulary and sophistication is about the same.
Taken in its own right, this is an averagely engaging, lightweight adventure story with some Victorian SciFi thrown in for people who like that kind of thing. The characters are mostly by-the-book, but not entirely without interest. George Archer is the Unassuming Hero: a clock mender working for the British Museum who becomes unwillingly involved in a far-fetched plot hatched by the Manic Millionaire with two Thuggish Henchmen. He falls in with the Resourceful Female: Liz Oldfield, sparky daughter of a clergyman with aspirations to be an actress. Helping them out are the Artful Dodger: Eddie Hopkins, the pickpocket with a soft heart, and the Wise Elder: Sir William Protheroe, with faintly mysterious connections and a surprisingly sprightly agility. (The author is well-known as an author within the Dr Who series, and it wouldn't surprise me if that had been an influence on this character in particular).
The Grotesquerie enters from the start and centres around a fairly batty scheme to build a mechanical steam-powered army of reanimated humans and animals. This already includes a dinosaur which stalks the peasoupered streets of London and one of George's former colleagues. The idea is that you can revive pretty much anything by filling its brain with electricity and you can control it by performing some ad-hoc brain surgery. It's the old Frankenstein syndrome: silly, and offensive if taken seriously, but just enough to fill out the plot.
On the way, Liz and George attend a séance with a view to contacting the dead-but-reanimated Wilkes. The medium is obviously a charlatan and the séance itself fraudulent, but at a certain point it's clear that Wilkes, in Lorimore's lab, is in fact carrying out the spirit writing which the others are witnessing. It's not clear what logic this is supposed to follow, and no explanation is attempted, not even by our token religious character, Liz's parson father.
To defend himself and his friends, George adapts a couple of his clockwork devices, one to fire ball-bearings, the other to explode at a certain time. Although the targets are obvious wrongdoers, both are used quite ruthlessly, and possibly kill one henchman. On another occasion, clearly in self-defence, George hits a part-human hard on the head with a rock. In general, the violence in the story is no more than you expect in a Victorian SciFi romp but these odd moments are noticeably stronger in their impact.
Of course, Liz falls for George, and they unofficially adopt Eddie. Liz is considered unladylike for her desire to work in the theatre, and certainly she's going against her father's wishes. By Victorian standards, she's probably also going beyond the pale by visiting him alone at his house although loosely chaperoned at various times by Eddie and Sir William. By any modern standards, however, her relationship with George is entirely innocent and above-board.
- What makes something alive?
- The Victorian passion for dinosaurs
Moonlight struggled through the thinning cloud. The fog evaporated. The metallic clanking echoed through the night close beside Eddie, and he spun round. It sounded like chains rattling down at the docks. It sent a shiver of fear through his whole body, but it did not even begin to prepare him for what he saw.
A massive head roared out of the darkness high above him, steam blowing through the enormous mouth — like a dragon. The clanking was the snapping of its jaws and warm liquid dripped off the sharpened points of the teeth, raining down on Eddie. The beast's dripping saliva stained his clothing and burned his terrified face. The nightmare creature roared like a train hurtling into a tunnel and clouds of hot breath erupted into the air around Eddie.
Saturday 3rd June 2006