Boyd Tonkin: Animal magic from pen to page

The week in books

If the usual post-prandial word-games drag this Christmas, why not try the one that involves re-locating classic works of fiction in humdrum corners of this sceptered isle? Would readers feel quite the same thrill about One Hundred Years of Solihull, or Hove in the Time of Cholera? East of the capital, you might encounter Heart of Dartford and Sacred Ongar; west, The Ealing Art, Time's Harrow, Maidenhead Revisited and The Human Staines. Go further north, and you discover that chilling fable of totalitarian golf in Scotland, Darkness at Troon.

The comics artist and graphic novelist Bryan Talbot trumped all such bids in 2007 with his inspired visual-verbal journey into the industrial and cultural past of the city on the Wear, and in particular its links with the life and work of Lewis Carroll. He entitled it Alice in Sunderland. For all its celebrity fan-base, graphic fiction (or dramatised history, in this case) still tends to slip between the cracks of critical judgement. So Alice in Sunderland still lacks sufficient recognition as one of the landmark British books of the past decade.

Talbot, best known before for his Luther Arkwright SF strips and books, first showed the extent of his ambition in the mid-1990s when he lent his gift for nuanced graphic narrative to the aftermath of child abuse in The Tale of One Bad Rat. Now he returns with a follow-up to Grandville, his richly imagined and beautifully drawn "steampunk" fantasia of late 19th-century England as an occupied colony of imperial France. Just as beautiful to behold, just as mind-bogglingly inventive, Grandville Mon Amour (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) gives us another Holmesian tale of conspiracy, detection and pursuit.

Talbot's alternative universe surely owes a debt to to the pioneer novels of steampunk: Keith Roberts's Pavane and (perhaps my favourite work of his after Lucky Jim) Kingsley Amis's The Alteration. In this version of a modified past, not only does the mighty post-Napoleonic republic ruled from "Grandville" (Paris) still hold sway over its rebellious satellite, nominally independent again but rocked from time to time by outrages committed by the police-labelled "anarchists" of the British resistance to trans-Manche hegemony. Its inhabitants take on animal form, gloriously depicted by the artist, from bulldog politicians and walrus brigadiers to frog pawnbrokers and the sex kittens and seductive piglets in the plush gas-lit brothel run by that blowsy sharp-tongued hippo, Madame Riverhorse. Talbot tips his titfer to the Alice books, and Tenniel's visualisation, but this work – though huge fun – is not one for the kids.

In his sequel, the canine psychopath Edward "Mad Dog" Mastock has cheated the guillotine at the Tower of London (guarded by its sinister, Gatling gun-toting ravens). With a crazed killer on the loose, Inspector Archie LeBrock of the Yard must badger away at the clues, abetted by the twitching intellectual whiskers of his sidekick, the dapper detective Roderick Ratzi. Meanwhile, the Angry Brigade still plots to avenge the infamous Brick Lane Massacre, and puppet President Drummond faces his inauguration at Westminster with dark secrets still unexposed.

Talbot plays with colour, angle and perspective just as gleefully as with the facts of history. The look of Belle Epoque Paris merges with the naughty-nineties London of Whistler, Wilde and Conan Doyle. In proper steampunk fashion, ironclad airships and mechanical robots coincide with fuggy Victorian pubs and Toulouse Lautrec-style poster art. Familiar icons and stories pass through the looking-glass of a strictly logical fantasy.

It hards needs saying that this gorgeous fabrication will answer to anybody's need for a gift with dash and panache to spare. More to the point, this season it proves what the printed volume – something of a steampunk hangover itself, if you credit much of the current punditry - can still achieve. A Kindle reader would turn Grandville Mon Amour into an enfeebled travesty of itself. The iPad would capture its radiant tones and dense textures better, but as a poor substitute for the real thing. This book needs to be a book, not some fuzzy, scaled-down app.

Kids' poetry survives the idiots

As a parable of the hi-jacking of noble causes by malevolent thuggery, this sounds almost too perfect – worthy of Dostoyevsky. Alas, it is true. During last's week student-fees demo, vandals (in no sense "protestors") tried to wreck the Christmas tree (right) that stands, a gift from the city of Oslo since 1947, in Trafalgar Square. The knuckleheads failed, but did destroy the banners around it. They carried specially commissioned poems (from a Poetry Society project) by schoolchildren in Norway and England on the tree's theme of peace. Thankfully, I can report a happy ending. The banners were restored on Wednesday, and will stay up until Twelfth Night.

A hypnotic hit from Stockholm

Take assorted editions of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy; add Jo Nesbo's The Snowman, and Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin: the 1947 novel that that has turned into one of the year's most enduring hits. Together, these novels in translation account for six – or fully 30 per cent – of the paperback top 20 in this most ruthlessly commercial of weeks for the British book trade. In 2011, which fresh imports will match their dazzling performance? Since the world seems to turn around Stockholm, I would keep a close eye on The Hypnotist by Swedish thriller writer Lars Kepler. Well, not quite "writer": Lars Kepler is the pseudonym of married couple, and established authors, Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril. The latter's bio-novel of Ingmar Bergman, The Director, appeared here in 2008. Their double act aims to emulate the popularity of their compatriots Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, not to mention our own "Nicci French": ie Nicci Gerrard and the - half-Swedish - Sean French.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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