Vaughn Entwistle’s The Dead Assassin is a direct sequel to The Revenant of Thraxton Hall (2014). Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, having successfully survived their first paranormal investigation, are pulled into another, this time in relation to a series of bloody murders occurring across London. The killer leaves behind a mutilated corpse and seems to punch through solid walls to get to a target: who could want all these men dead and who could hire an assassin of such strength?
Revenant (reviewed on this blog by Susan Jacobsen) was an entertaining if uneven read; Assassin is an excellent sequel with a solid last half demonstrating that many of the narrative kinks from Revenant have since been worked out. Entwistle toys with the edges of a steampunk Victorian universe without quite committing to it, allowing him to stay firmly within the bounds of the historical personalities he has chosen as main characters. His use of steam and clockwork technology is closer to the Victorians’ fascination with mechanical engineering than to a steampunked twenty-first century vision of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, fans of Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest will enjoy the nods to ‘what might have been.’
Assassin starts with a bang: Conan Doyle and Jean Leckie, a recent acquaintance from a spiritualist society, are in the midst of a mostly innocent dinner when a blood-soaked policeman staggers in looking for Doyle. A murder has been committed and Doyle is needed. Oscar Wilde shows up as if on cue when Conan Doyle is searching for a cab to the crime scene and voila. A murderous Frankenstein’s monster is introduced within the first twenty pages and, really, it just gets better from there. Entwistle builds on Revenant’s vision for a London brushed by the paranormal, introducing the horrifically charismatic Rufus DeVayne as well as a cryptic Fog Committee and a TORCHWOOD-esque security organization run out of Buckingham Palace.
Assassin also enlarges — or, perhaps, tantalizingly hints at — on Conan Doyle and Wilde’s private lives with a slightly more delicate hand than Entwhistle used in Revenant. There are several passages of dialogue that brush the edges of Wilde’s life, particularly around his relationship with his wife, Constance, and with the ‘invert’ community of London, that it would have been wonderful to see expanded. Conan Doyle, too, with his struggle between faithfulness to his dying wife Louisa and his attraction to Jean Leckie, has introspective moments that could have been expanded upon most enjoyably.
Assassin, however, is first and foremost an adventure story and Entwistle never forgets that. A denouement that includes a chase on a steam motorcycle, lions, deadly cocktails, and megalomaniacs delivers beautifully on the build-up.