The Minutes of the Lazarus Club, By Tony Pollard

Eminent Victorians help gaslight romance to shine

Roz Kaveney
Thursday 07 August 2008 00:00

There is a mournful sense in which we know that a particular sort of film or book has become a genre, rather than a marketing category, by the fact that it has acquired clichés. It is, of course, necessary to distinguish those clichés from the defining characteristics that enable us to point to a genre in the first place. Tony Pollard's first novel is a workmanlike example of gaslight romance and, at the same time, an awful warning about those default assumptions and habits.

Part of the point of gaslight romance is that, like the grand originals to which it pays homage, it is full of gadgets that to us are quaint at best. But in the 19th-century setting of such books they are symptoms of glaring modernity – like gaslight itself. Among these will be the telegraph and latterly the telephone and the railway. Just as mobile phones have changed almost every possible plot for us, so those technological advances change everything for Victorian adventurers. Perhaps most importantly, they enable a modern writer to think about setting conveniences aside and investigating mysteries by the power of reason.

Pollard's hero, the young surgeon George Phillips, finds himself caught up in that traditional device – a mystery that seems at first to be several different matters. He is on the fringes of a series of eviscerations, and thus a suspect; he is befriended by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who wants to know about the workings of the human heart; he meets Florence Nightingale. He is an innocent, clumsily surfing the wave-front of permanent change. So far, so good: Pollard is often exciting in his desperate chases around wharves, warehouses and cemeteries, and occasionally touching in his hero's failure to understand the limited usefulness of his ideas. Where the book fails is that Pollard finds himself caught in almost every standard plot going: the Serial Killer, the Secret Weapon, the Agents of an Unpleasant Foreign Power. That some of these turn out to be colossal red herrings is laughable rather than clever.

The Minutes of the Lazarus Club has some neat vignettes of the famous – Darwin and Babbage walk through, and not just for name-dropping – and interesting reminders about how technology has often proceeded by false analogy. At its best, it does what all genre novels should: entertain us by gaming with our expectations of what sort of book this is.

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