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Those of you who have read the 'Vesuvius Club' of the 'Devil in Amber' will already have come across the delights of Lucifer Box, Mark Gatiss's brilliant creation part artist, part spy and all philanderer, his sexual predilections swinging both ways.
Many will know Mark Gatiss from his days with the League of Gentlemen, but in recent years he's also devoted a lot of his time to writing. As well as the Lucifer Box novels he's also regularly contributed scripts to Dr Who and Sherlock as well as writing an acclaimed ghost story drama 'Crooked House' for the BBC.
We first met Lucifer as a young rakish man in Edwardian England where under his cover as an artist of the Royal Academy he went about his business as a secret agent for the crown. His exploits were first documented in 'the Vesuvius Club' the first novel in the series. We next met up with Lucifer a couple of decades on in the second novel 'The Devil in Amber' where are as a man approaching middle age he had risen to become the 'Secret' secret service's most able spy busy thwarting the evil designs of Nazi occultists. In this third and maybe final instalment we catch up with Lucifer Box a few months short of this retirement. Now an elderly man but still in possession of all his faculties and appetites he has risen to the very top of the secret agency known as the 'Royal Academy' achieving the pseudonym of Joshua Reynolds the top spymaster. However Lucifer is uncomfortable with retirement and with the plans to absorb his secret service department into the up and coming MI6. When one of his close friends and colleagues is found to have committed suicide something seems wrong to Lucifer when other prominent pillars of the establishment meet unusual deaths alarm bells start ringing and Lucifer embarks on one last mission. Soon he comes across the mysterious Black Butterfly organisation and an even more mysterious drug they seem to be peddling. It's not long before he makes a connection with an enemy from long ago. His investigation takes him from the sleazy street of 1950's Soho to the exotic cafes and street markets of Istanbul and the sun drenched Caribbean. Will Lucifer box now an old man finally come up against his most deadly enemy and undergo a more permanent retirement that he was planning for?
As always with Mark Gatiss's entertaining series of pastiche novels there is a lot in this book to delight in. Once again he's tapped into a rich genre of classic fiction. The first novel managed to parody the exploit of Edwardian creation like Adam Adamant or Richard Hannay. The second brought to life roaring twenties and the spectre of Fascism rising across Europe as a background to an occult thriller alluding to the real life Aleister Cowley. This third and final instalment is firmly grounded in the cold war espionage thriller that was most famously associated with Ian Fleming.
This latest incarnation of Lucifer Box is very much written in the style of an Ian Fleming Bond novel. Gatiss plays around with the genre introducing an array of wonderfully imaginative characters such as 'Whitley Bey', a half Turkish, half Geordie spy and the leader of a secret cadre of psychoanalysts-cum-mercenaries called the Jung Turks. This group imagine themselves into the mind of their enemies and then through analysis work their next move would be.
"If this failed they fell back on good old-fashioned Balkan brutality."
We also meet the agents of the international crime organisation A.C.R.O.N.I.M. and an evil femme fatale called Victoria Wine and her henchman Oddbins. Ok this is silly stuff but enjoyable and cleverly thought out.
Lucifer Box is the ultimate anti hero, charming but rakish and totally immoral even at this late stage in his life. There is a more serious note to the character as he struggles to face old age and the prospect of retirement. Not that his advancing years have moderated his lustful appetites, unfortunately for Lucifer these days young women and young men don't find his advances so appealing, his libertine days might finally be over. The focus of his lustful urges in this story is the enigmatic assassin Kingdum Kum who although thwarting Lucifer at every turn still manages to raise Lucifer's pulse.
Lucifer is still living in his old haunt N.9 Downing Street ("Someone has to live there") unfortunately he is now without his redoubtable sidekick and domestic Delilah, she's retired to run a seedy nightclub in Soho but thankfully she make a welcomed if brief appearance in the story.
The writing style will be familiar to all those who have read Fleming's original Bond novels and Gatiss's choice of locations are also a reminder of that golden age of cold war spy fiction. Even the cover parodies the early Fleming James Bond covers. Gatiss is a real aficionado of the genre and at every opportunity he shows off his knowledge, there are many hidden references to films and novel in the course of the story that will delight all serious fans.
There are some drawbacks this third in the series. The sheer inventiveness and shock appeal of the character has naturally diminished over the course of three books and his advancing years do introduce a more sombre aspect to the story that might not sit easily with the silliness of the plot. However it is to Mark Gatiss's credit that he has chosen to develop his character in this way and not simply churned out formulaic sequels to the brilliant original. Lucifer has matured but at his core he is the same as he ever was, these days on the outside he might resemble more George Smiley than the dashing figure of his youth but on the inside he's still James Bond with a good helping of Flashman. I suppose this is a fair reflection of what getting older is like.
The story is fast paced, action packed and full of laugh out loud moments. There might be a few too many puns but you are carried along by the sheer bravado of the writing.
Gatiss has stated that this will be the last Lucifer Box novel, he certainly can't develop him any further in terms of age, I suspect that the temptation of once again revisiting such a great literary creation might be too much and we will see more stories of Lucifer in his heyday. I for one would be very glad if he did!
Do you have to read the previous books to get the most out of this one? Yes, you probably do but it is worth the effort.
Suspend belief, political correctness, and morality and enjoy. Highly recommended!
'Black Butterfly' can be bought in paperback (224 pages) from Amazon for £5.25 with free delivery at the time of this review.
© Mauri 2011