“Not enough time had passed since he had sat on the side of that very bed, there, and held Sarah’s hand while the drugs had struggled to do their work. He didn’t know if he could trust himself. He felt like one of the Span’s great cables wound too tight. Even braided steel snapped under enough strain.”
To differentiate it from alternate-history fantasy or “gas-lamp” tales, steampunk almost has to have some outstanding piece of technology. It might be airborne penny-farthings, brass seam-driven motorcycles or clunky calculating machines that magically provide access to vast amounts of information. In Thomas Brennan’s novel Doktor Glass, the extraordinary thing that looms over the entire novel is the Transatlantic Span, a vast bridge that runs from Liverpool to New York Harbor — a span that is about to be inaugurated in a great public ceremony just days after the story begins.
By page 28 of Doktor Glass, when a medium tells the hero that his wife’s soul is with “the Jar Boys,” I was hooked.
Matthew Langton is a police inspector still reeling with grief over the death of his wife Sarah only three months earlier. Langton is called to investigate the death of an employee of the Transatlantic Span Company, who has had his face cut off. He is also forced to confront the possible reality of the Jar Boys. It seems unlikely that these two cases, one of national importance and the other deeply personal, will intersect, yet each case demands the best of Langton’s intellect, experience and intuition.
The faceless dead man is covered with tattoos Langton recognizes from the protracted Boer War. Immediately the higher-ups worry that a Boer terrorist group will attack the new bridge. Langton is saddled with an observer from the Home Office as well as his blustering and incompetent boss. The observer isn’t telling Langton everything he knows, but insists that Langton find the man who ran when they went to question him; the dead man’s roommate and co-worker.
Langton’s real interest, though, is in the Jar Boys. Langton always thought the Jar Boys were like the bogeyman, a myth adopted by the ignorant. Certainly many unscrupulous con artists have cheated the grieving families of terminally ill people out of money by promising to “preserve” the loved one’s soul in a jar until it can be restored to a different body. Langton is startled to find that several educated, intelligent medical professionals think this is more than a myth or a swindle. There are at least three gangs in Liverpool who “trade” in souls; the Caribs, the Spring-heeled Bob gang, and a gang led by the mysterious Doktor Glass.
The tension mounts when Dr. Redfers, Sarah’s own doctor, is found murdered, and there are twin burn marks on the back of his skull, marks just like the faceless man had. These marks, an expert tells Langton, are used to transfer the “life essence” into a storage jar. The problem is compounded when it becomes obvious that Redfers was storing those very jars in his house, and getting regular, if odd, sums of money from various aristocrats. A nurse at the Liverpool infirmary, Sister Wright, informs Langton that the latest craze for the jaded wealthy is to absorb a whiff of a “life essence” — taking a memory or a dream from a trapped soul.
As Langton continues to investigate the murder, the clues he finds both support and contradict the idea of a Boer-directed attack on the Span. He visits the shantytown encampment just below the great bridge, and discovers the dark cost of this engineering marvel. One thousand and twenty four steel pillars were sunk into the Atlantic, using men in caissons to dig the foundations. These pillars support the bridge. For each pillar, the company estimates that three lives were lost. A group of women in the encampment, who call themselves the Caisson Widows, still agitate for recompense for lost husbands and sons.
Langton’s grief makes him a relatable character. He is a good detective, even though his suspects escape him with surprising ease throughout the first two-thirds of the book. It also is clear right away to the reader who the informer to the press is, and Langton doesn’t catch up until much later. His desire to make the Jar Boys case his primary one is enflamed by the thought of Sarah’s essence being defiled by men who have paid for that privilege. This is a convincingly Victorian concept and is both creepy and compelling. Of course the two cases do have a common root, and by solving the question of who took Sarah’s soul, Langton does discover a plot against the giant bridge, although it is nothing like what he expected. The certain knowledge that Doktor Glass is holding Sarah’s soul creates a moral dilemma for Langton and there is a real risk that he, like braided steel wound too tight, will snap.
Thomas Brennan’s writing is more than up to the task of creating this world, and now and then he writes a phrase that is startling and vivid, like this one, where Langton finds the pieces of a body torn apart by a train: “… more fragments of cloth, a starched collar curling like a red leaf.”
I thought there were a few loose ends here. An attack on Langton’s house, coming when it does in the story, did not make good sense to me. There is also a thread involving a specific bottle of pills that seems to trail away rather than resolve. It can be argued that the “trailing away” is the resolution, but it didn’t satisfy me. At the very end, Doktor Glass’s strange plot and the reason for it must be insane, and that’s convincingly drawn, but Brennan deliberately leaves in clues that suggest that Doktor Glass is not completely insane. This feels as if he is leaving the door open for more Langton books; or perhaps it’s just the usual feeling that large companies with large sums of money — and big investments — will always be ruthless and there will never be justice for the everyday people who toil for them. If the bridge itself is doing what Doktor Glass thinks it is, though, that’s a pretty big problem.
What stood out, beyond Langton’s dealing with loss, was the majesty and danger of the Span. Brennan outdoes himself with these descriptions. Second only to that is the beauty with which Liverpool is evoked. From the homes of the wealthy to the honeycomb of tunnels and caves, Brennan weaves a real place, a multilayered place filled with history, beauty, and danger.
(There is an American writer named Thomas Brennan who has written both fiction and non-fiction, and an American writer named Tom Brennan who wrote a true crime book about an Alaska murder, so when I tried to research this book, I got very confused. I wish Ace, the American publisher, would take a little time to help a poor reader differentiate.)
Parts of the plot may be predictable, but the Span itself, Doktor Glass’s great visuals and the moral questions it raises about life and death made it a deeply interesting read. I think this is Thomas Brennan’s first steampunk novel and I certainly hope it won’t be his last.