Mark Gatiss

 

The Vesuvius Club

 

This starts OK with our enjoyable scarlet pimpernel dilettante character being frightfully sophisticated, and Gatiss generally does a good job playing with the irony of, say, the hero being far more concerned with tiny blood splatters ruining his linen suit than with the horribly dismembered corpse confronting him. Moreover he soon captured the feel of Conan-Doyle’s turn of the century Europe, civilised private clubs of ludicrous pretentiousness and excess lounging among disease ridden hovels. After a chapter or two I was looking forward to a thriller with a comic edge in an interesting historical setting populated by charmingly eccentric/exotic/appalling characters.

 

Alas, having completed the book I can now recommend you stop reading fairly early and just enjoy the promise. It peaked about ten pages in, and by halfway had become a chore. We soon lose the sophistication and descend into James Bond (circa Roger Moore) farce. The sex couldn’t be any more gratuitous. In fact it’s beyond gratuity and yet another story with an immoral – Gatiss goes to some pains to affront/instruct anyone who might be as contemptible as to not advocate promiscuous bisexuality. 

 

It fails on so many levels. The lead character, billed as the ultimate cunning spy, only once does something arguably clever (with plaster of paris) while far more consistently acting stupidly. Marlowe-like he just bowls on into known highly dangerous places without a plan, but in contrast he has no wit or core nobility to excuse this. Alternatively he blithely executes an unsuspecting, unarmed man as he dines, having his staff clean up the body: did I miss what was particularly dashing and entertaining here? The villains are lifted straight from  Batman (TV, not film), as is the absurd climax (and don’t even start me on the groan-inducing, forehead smacking twist revelation at the end). Maybe, just maybe, some of this could have been successful as wry satire, but Gatiss seems to want us to glorify this derivative mess as some sort of ‘plot’.

 

Stephen Fry praises the book for its depravity, something I can’t enjoy in either his or Gatiss’ work: however even in some of his seedy novels I must grudgingly acknowledge that Fry does show some superb turns of wit. I feel no compunction to acknowledge any such thing in The Vesuvius Club; indeed, if there was no homosexuality in this book I feel pretty certain Fry wouldn’t have found much wit to praise in it either.

 

December 2006