Review: Necropolis / Author: Basil Copper / Publisher: Valancourt Press / Release Date: Out Now
Valancourt Press is a small publisher in the US that is doing a sterling job of bringing back into print neglected works in a number of niche genres, particularly the macabre and the occult. This gaslight detective novel by the prolific but unjustly neglected Basil Copper (1924-2013) is a recent beneficiary of their efforts, receiving its first paperback publication in more than 30 years.
Necropolis is essentially a straight Conan Doyle pastiche, but a very good one. Its resourceful hero is a private detective named Clyde Beatty, the sort of man who would make a very good second choice if you couldn't get the great Sherlock Holmes to take your case. Together with his pugilist-turned-tech-guy assistant, Dotterel, he looks into the suspicious death of a City banker, which eventually opens up into a wider case of... but that would be telling.
Copper pens a sturdily entertaining tale, galvanized with regular gunplay and fisticuffs, and built around a series of atmospheric and crisply described set-pieces – an exhumation, the exploration of a tunnel where corpses spring out at you, various elaborate night-sorties and stakeouts. The expected Holmesian tropes are there – pea-soupers, stiff-upper-lipped dialogue (“The old firm stands together. But I must say we have not seen a tighter spot than tonight”), a villain with one leg shorter than the other, a supporting role for Inspector Lestrade. What gives this novel a little something extra, though, is the depth of Copper's historical research and his sharp eye for the telling period detail. In particular, he makes great play with the real-life Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, a sprawling, 450-acre site which was served by a daily train from Waterloo (known as the Ghost Train) bringing coffins and mourners from London. One of the chief pleasures of Necropolis is the way in which Copper works this actual social phenomenon of the time so adroitly into the centre of the mystery.
Beatty himself never quite grabs the attention in the way that he should (he's overshadowed by Dotterel, a much more intriguing and handy character), but this hardly matters in a novel that's all about blood and thunder and old-fashioned storytelling. It's quite amazing to think that a book that is so accessible and fun has been out of print for so long. Certainly anyone who relishes the steampunk novels of James Blaycock or any of the Holmes homages currently on the market should find it just the ticket for whiling away a foggy Autumn evening.