If Ian Fleming and Arthur Conan Doyle somehow had a baby, and then sent it off to be raised by Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe, it might have grown up to be Lucifer Box, the hero of Mark Gatiss's The Vesuvius Club. Box is an Edwardian-era secret agent, who, when he's not off saving the Realm, is a painter and a much- sought-after guest at all the best parties. Box narrates his own story, and the result is irreverent, witty, knowing, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Many reviews of the novel toss around the word "pastiche," and that's fair--it's impossible not to think of James Bond, of Sherlock Holmes, even of Bertie Wooster and maybe Edward Gorey while reading--but Gatiss is doing something of his own, too. Box is unapologetically bisexual and from there stems some of what is most interesting about the book; in their review of The Vesuvius Club, The Times Literary Supplement says that Box is "revealed to be bisexual" at the midpoint of the story. I'd say rather that, if you've been paying attention, he is gleefully affirmed to be bisexual at the midpoint of the story. Only a few of the other characters in the book know this about Box (it is early twentieth century England, after all), but between Box-as-narrator and the reader, his bisexuality is treated as a perhaps slightly-shocking-fact at first, but never as something shameful, dirty, or prurient (or at least not any more prurient than anything else--the whole book is delightfully nudge-nudge-wink-wink). It is then taken as given, and Box's sexual interest in valet Charlie is treated as no more remarkable than his sexual interest in drawing-student Bella. And that, itself, I think, is remarkable, even (especially?) today. The novel is not about Box's bisexuality, and in not being about that, somehow it becomes about just that. And I love it for it.
I suppose I should say something about the plot--the novel is a mystery story, and the plot does trip along. Lots of fairly ridiculous incidents, competently written action, and it all hangs together well enough in the end. But really it's about the humor, the wit, and the pastiche. And a certain amount of (somewhat surprising) heart. It's clear that Gatiss had a brilliant time writing this, and if you are in any way inclined toward liking The Vesuvius Club that delight will pass over into your reading experience. That being said, this book is probably not for everyone. There's an element of the send-up here, of going over-the-top, of taking something to such heights of badness that it becomes irresistibly good, and if that's not your thing, this may read flat. But. If you like that sort of thing, this is exactly the sort of thing you will like.
This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.