Balfour and Meriwether in the Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham
“I can’t say we’d have shied away from the devil, if he’d been able to assure the stability and greatness of England. It’s an ugly truth, and we don’t proclaim it from the rooftops, but in governance, expedience often wins over principle.”
Daniel Abraham is best known for his epic fantasy (THE LONG PRICE QUARTET and THE DAGGER AND THE COIN), the urban fantasy he writes under his penname M.L.N. Hanover (BLACK SUN’S DAUGHTER) and the science fiction he writes as James S.A. Corey (THE EXPANSE). But he’s also been writing a series of steampunk stories about a couple of British secret agents named Balfour and Meriwether. The first of these, “The Adventure of The Emperor’s Vengeance” tells how Balfour and Meriwether stopped an ancient Egyptian automaton from taking over London. It appeared in the anthology Enemy of the Good (Postscripts #19) in 2009 and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded in 2010. There is also a free podcast version. In the second story, “The Vampire of Kabul,” the gentlemen team up with Czarina Maria Feodorovna to catch what appears to be a Muslim terrorist. This story can be found in Subterranean Press’s free online magazine, Subterranean Online, in Fall 2011, and there’s a podcast, too.
Now Subterranean Press is releasing the third BALFOUR AND MERIWETHER story, Balfour and Meriwether in the Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs, as a free-standing novella. You do not need to read the previous stories to enjoy the third one, but you may as well.
In this adventure, Lord Carmichael of the British government has a delicate problem that he needs to solve — Daniel Winters, one of their secret agents, had disappeared and it’s important that he be found without involving other authorities. That’s because the disappearance probably involves some sort of supernatural activity and the government wants to hide that kind of thing from its citizens. Balfour and Meriwether are sent to the last place the agent was seen — a seaside town whose main feature is the Harrowmoor Sanitarium where the mentally ill are cared for. When they get there, Balfour attempts to retrace Winter’s steps in town while Meriwether visits the sanitarium and finds a disgruntled man who seems sane and can probably help. All three men finally meet up at an abandoned farmhouse which seems to sit above what I’d like to call The Well to Hell.
Balfour and Meriwether in the Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs is a pleasure to read. The setting and characters are quickly but effectively drawn, the descriptions are vivid, the dialogue seems natural, the plot is quick-moving and exciting, and the prose is often quite lovely. Best of all, the story is perfectly balanced between action, characterization, and contemplation — more so than the previous short stories. We especially learn a lot about Meriwether in this story — he really comes alive.
Because this story is longer than its predecessors, Abraham has the time to offer more than a quick steampunk adventure. He manages to presents a sensitive and thoughtful consideration of homosexuality in a society where it was absolutely unacceptable. He also asks us to contemplate that age-old question of whether the end justifies the means. Balfour and Meriwether learn that their country has been forced to work with some unsavory allies — is this ethical? Will it backfire? I hope we’ll find out in future installments.