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The Devil in Amber sees Lucifer Box returning to what he does best 20 years on. We join Lucifer in New York in the 1920's where the opening chapter sees him struggling with a drugs baron in a church. Lucifer's life is saved by a new and younger assassin by the name of Percy Flarge.
Lucifer also has a new superior, who has inherited his old boss' name, Joshua Reynolds. The new Reynolds thinks it's high time that Box gave up the game now his is middle aged, and made way for the new younger Flarge to take his place as assassin extraordinaire to the Royal Academy. Flarge gives Box one last assignment, to investigate a fraternity called FAUST run by a man called Olympus Mons. Whilst chasing Mons from New York, back to Norfolk and on to Switzerland, Box is accused of murder. With no choice but to follow the clues to the fraternity, Box uncovers a deep and devilish plot.
The first Lucifer Box novel, "The Vesuvius Club", was so enjoyable, I was really looking forward to tucking in to this one. The beginning of the novel shows Lucifer once again confiding in his readers, reminding those who know his past adventures how brilliant he is, and scolding those new readers who have just joined him on his adventures "dear me, where have you been?" and the first few chapters promised a return to his old humour, a mixture of quick witted sarcasm, arrogance and camp playfulness.
However, as the book wore on, I saw less and less of his distinctive personality and (perhaps due to age?!) less assertiveness and confidence in his job. The quick one liners were few and far between and I rarely found myself chuckling out loud. Gatiss' natural talent is for comedy which "The Vesuvius Club" had in buckets, but it was distinctly lacking in this one.
Another problem with the book is that the middle section involves a long journey by boat from New York back to England. Whereas the journey time must be realistic, it means that Box is stuck on the boat with actually not a lot really happening. I found this passage quite boring really and it was quite easy to forget his main mission. Once off on dry land however, the pace kicked up a notch once again, but just not up to scratch - sorry to make the comparison again - to the original book.
There were some great new characters in this book with the fabulously quirky names that we have come to expect from the Lucifer Box novels. From Captain Corpusty through to Percy Flarge, these characters certainly stick in your memory although their names are perhaps not as spectacular as the last lot from the Vesuvius. We are introduced to Lucifers younger sister, and this at last made me smile...her name is Pandora Box. Brilliant! However, she doesn't appear too often in the book, completely off her rocker, (enough to make Lucifer look sane at least) Pandora isn't the nicest of characters so there was no real enjoyment taken from her character aside from her name.
What was really missing was a sidekick for Lucifer, and the real disappointment was that many of the characters from the first book were missing. Charlie Jackpot was Lucifers sidekick and lover in the first book, loveable with a sensible side to balance out Lucifers arrogance, I was really looking forward to the return of their partnership and seeing it blossom. Sadly, this was not meant to be as we learn that Jackpot died during WW1. Likewise, I enjoyed the relationship of Box and Christopher Miracle, but Miracle only appears shortly to impart some vital information at the beginning of Box's adventures. Even Delilah, Lucifer's faithful domestic, is missing for the majority of the book. Aside from a bell-boy in New York, Lucifer's only companion is a young girl called Aggie who is vital to Olympus Mons cruel and evil plan.
However, unlike the partnerships before her, she is weak and unworldly, and just comes off as a bit of a sap, and quite frankly is no good for most of the book as she is drugged by the criminals!
So Lucifer goes this alone. Occasionally we see his quick wit and sarcasm when speaking with his various enemies, but I found overall he was on a lonely crusade this time and the light banter which was so successful in the original book was missing.
Alongside this, the story was even more absurd than the first book, the plot to make the devil rise through some kind of scripture and sacrificing innocents as well as seeing dead people come to life and speak and Lucifer seeing an ugly face in the sky...it was all too much! I really enjoyed the bonkers plot in the first book, completely crackers, the humorous tone suited it perfectly. However, without the level of humour in this book, the whole ending was just too out there for me. It has seriously made me consider whether I actually want to purchase the last book in the series, whatever will Lucifer get involved with next?!
Herioc dandy and hedonist, Lucifer Box, battles the evil minions of F.A.U.S.T and their demagogic (and demigodic, even) fascist leader Olympus Mons. Will Mons and his Amber shirts manage to get the devil on their side? Or can Box (far from an angel himself) make Beelzebub dance to his jig?
This is the middle novel in what Mark Gatiss (the cannibalist butcher and others from the comedy horror show "League of Gentlemen") likes to call a "Lucifer Box Set".
Whereas the first book ("The Vesuvius Club") was inspired by Oscar Wilde, this one is a pastiche of the kind of headlong thriller that was so popular in the '30s, and is clearly modelled on John Buchan's "Thirty-nine Steps" with its framing of the hero followed by a mad chase across rough country. This formulaic approach is actually quite fun, and the pace never lets up, with lots of hiding, fighting and sex.
If I have a criticism, it is in the character of Box himself. His louche aphorisms and one-liners sat more comfortably in the smoky club atmosphere of the first book, and seems contrived in this one. Perhaps this is Gatiss' intention, though, as Box is rather a fish out of water the whole way through the book.
All in all a fun read, and a nicely-produced book, peppered with illustrations, which reminded me of the kind of thriller I used to read as a kid (although be aware, this one is definitely not suitable for children!)
You'll either love it or hate it, a bit like the League of Gentlemen.
Surely theed is not alone in getting annoyed when he finds actors and other personalities getting books published. Not so much when they're awful tat - they're easy enough to avoid, but when they're really good entertainment, well thats different.
Jealous or not, theed will still happily read them.
The Devil in Amber is the second novel from Mark Gatiss from The League of Gentlemen, again featuring his hero Lucifer Box. Box really is the reason to read these books, as well plotted and intriguing as they are. He's handsome and knows it, talented and proud of the fact, and in his first person narrative just loves to tell you how rollicking his life as a secret agent has been.
Interestingly this book is set twenty years on from the first in the series, as if Gatiss is hedging his bets and allowing him to move on past Box at some point. This generation gap takes Box from the Edwardian era where he was so at home to start this book in Jazz Age New York. The age of side characters called Sal Volatile. The age of a fascist rouser whom Box is employed to investigate.
This adventure follows The Vesuvius Club in delving into underground, occult and bizarre crimes, with a hint of the vicious, a touch of the macabre, and a dash of bisexuality. There is not enough of any aspect however to put anyone off.
The comedy touches are fine - especially the lead, Lucifer. He is one of the instances where the words enjoyably and contrived can be successfully put together. Whatever he does, the one person in the world who could help his mission's success will always fall into place at the right time - or, if he can help, into his bath with him.
Box has a great comic timing for his memoirs, but on the whole the events are played straight - and quite deadly serious at times. The thriller elements are played with all due gravity, and there are a couple of didn't-see-that-coming moments to be had.
This volume is not flawless - the trans-Atlantic voyage is a little over-long perhaps, making us forget the earlier thrust of the plot, which may be the point. We lose the quirky inventiveness of the secret services of the last book - where assignations were plotted in secretive public lavatory cubicles.
Neither quibble deserves it to lose a full dooyoo star from its rating, especially when we gain a delightful cameo from Mrs Croup halfway through, and although there are a couple of questionable elements to the plot the whole is great fun, jolly entertaining, and very easy to recommend to anyone, not just a thriller genre fan.
What cannot be recommended is reading the hardback's cover blurb, as it surely gives away too many elements of the plot.
This review has been slightly edited since first appearing on the bookbag site, where it appeared under another pseudonym of theediscernings.
Lucifer Box is a debauched painter and assassin working for the British secret service - which is of course based at the Royal Academy of Arts. In this second volume of his memoirs, some years after the events of The Vesuvius Club, we find our hero gently succumbing to the rigours of middle age. Is he a match for the dark forces of Fascism that are rising across Western Europe?
Mark Gatiss is slowly conquering every medium available to him. Since the League of Gentlemen were catapulted to fame in 1999, Gatiss has been arguably the most successful of its members - performing across radio, film, theatre and TV (most recently in Doctor Who), script editing Little Britain and writing for TV (mostly Doctor Who again). He's branched out into novels for Lucifer Box, although it's worth noting that he wrote several original Doctor Who novels in the 90s, most notably Nightshade.
Lucifer Box is a cad and a bounder, a relentless sexual omnivore and a ruthless killer when necessary. The entire novel is narrated in the first person by Box himself, which is a good job - he gets up to so much unpleasantness that the reader would quickly lose all sympathy with the character unless we were inside his head to see the rationale behind his actions.
The adventures in this novel follow the same pattern as the Vesuvius Club, beginning with fairly straight cops and robbers action (interspersed with a great deal of sex) before gradually becoming more fantastic as the stakes are raised. Lucifer Box's adventures are certainly lurid, and facing the devil himself raises the stakes nicely.
It's unclear how much research Gatiss undertakes in writing his novels - there are no glaring errors, but neither does he waste too much time on unnecessary period detail. Prohibition-era New York (where the book opens) is painted with broad strokes, and Lucifer's observations tend to be focused more on characters than on setting.
Certainly one aspect where there's a considerable divergence from historical fact is the brand of Fascist that Lucifer fights. The amber-shirted minions of FAUST are basically Nazis, but Gatiss shies away from the full-blown Indiana Jones histrionics of cartoon German soldiers. FAUST is entirely fictional, as is its leader Olympus Mons, even if its links to real world political movements are obvious.
This second outing for Lucifer focuses a bit more on the Service itself, which in the time-honoured tradition of this kind of book is revealed to be suffering from corruption at the highest levels. Lucifer shows a more vulnerable side as he comes to terms with the fact he's not as young as he once was, and this insecurity is personified by the younger agent Percy Flarge. Nothing about this strand of the story is particularly surprising as it follows its twists and turns, but the author's lively narration keeps your attention regardless.
I think that's what I like best about these books. As they are so steeped in the traditions of pulp thrillers, not many of the plot elements are particularly original in themselves. Fascists are always trying to summon the devil, there's always greed and corruption at the highest level of secret services and if you set a thriller in Switzerland and the villain DOESN'T try and escape by cable car? Well, you're just not trying. What keeps you reading is Lucifer's narrative voice - suave, witty, erudite and kinky. The main thing that separates this novel and, for example, the 39 Steps, is Lucifer. He's openly bisexual and describes encounters with both genders gleefully. He's capable of horrific casual violence, and he's very much a member of the Establishment. For this reason, it's great that when he stands up to the Fascists, it's not with a Bugs Bunny propaganda angle, but because he thinks they're just a bit vulgar.
If anything, the only surprising bit in the novel is the sequence where Lucifer slips into the forest to remember fallen comrades from the Great War. It's marked by one of the sporadic line illustrations and briefly grounds the utterly nutty adventure in real history.
Lucifer is a great character, completely of his time but with the psychological realism of a 21st Century antihero to rival Flashman. His adventures are brilliant flights of imagination and, if the various twists, turns and betrayals seem obvious from time to time, I think that's because Mark Gatiss is just writing the novels that we all really want to read.
Many of you might know Mark Gatiss from the darkly surreal comedy 'The League of Gentlemen' or more recently from his appearance and scriptwriting for the new Doctor Who but a few years ago he also gained a reputation as a novelist with his successful debut book 'The Vesuvius Club' in which he introduced the world to Lucifer Box the rakish Edwardian secret agent and royal academy artist. 'The Vesuvius Club' was an enjoyable read and I was pleased to find that Gatiss had written a sequel called 'The Devil In Amber'.
Lucifer Box is an intriguing literary creation a James Bond figure with the moral depravity that would make Harry Flashman look like a country vicar; Box swings both sides of the gender divide.
Lucifer Box like Flashman is the ultimate anti hero, he is selfish, immoral and egoistic but unlike Flashman he is courageous and while it coincides with his own interests he does with some regularity save the Empire from even more wicked and ruthless master criminals and evil foreign plots.
In the first novel we see Lucifer Box in his prime as a twenty something man serving his country as a secret agent working for the most secret of secret government agencies 'The Royal Academy' (?). His daytime occupation as an artist provided perfect cover for him just as the pursuit of fine art provides perfect cover for the agency. While he is not saving Britain from criminal plots he was busy having sex with anyone he was able to... male or female. Written in the first person through the eyes of Lucifer Box the reader really gets into his mind a place where you don't always want to be.
In his latest incarnation in 'The Devil In Amber' much time has passed, we are now two decades on Box is not a young man anymore and he's conscious of it. Even as an artist he has fallen out of fashion, his classical portrait style giving way to the newer abstract and cubist paintings. Once the darling of the secret service his position as number one agent is under threat from young upstarts such as the arrogant Percy Flarge. When on a mission in twenties art deco New York to assassinate a drug dealer Hubbard 'The Cupboard' Box is almost killed and only saved by Flarge. His confidence and ego are severely dented by this. More importantly the confidence of his superior and spymaster Joshua Reynolds (not The Joshua Reynolds) in his abilities are also dented and as a consequence Box finds himself given a rather mundane mission to observe the activities of F.A.U.S.T fascist leader Olympus Mons, which he feels does not become his reputation or importance. Needless to say his mundane mission soon becomes much more complicated as he gets entangled with dark plots, murder and black magic his most powerful adversary might end up being his name sake the Devil himself!
Has Lucifer finally met his match?
Apart from the formidable and exotic villains the story is once again populated with vivid characters that aid Box in his mission such as sidekick Rex 'the gay bellhop' and Delilah Lucifer's redoubtable cockney servant.
Once again Gatiss has written a fantastic yarn full of wit and verve. His use of language effortlessly builds up the tension of the story and creates an authentic historical atmosphere. Making Box older and going through a minor confidence crisis was an intriguing idea and opens up the character from a completely different view. He's still the self-obsessed devious and amoral scoundrel that we all loved so much from the first novel but his self-doubt and youthful arrogance are tempered just a little. The threats from the young upstarts around him make him a more sympathetic figure.
The settings of the story in twenties gangster ridden prohibition America, London, Switzerland and rural Norfolk are stylishly brought to life by Gatiss who once again show his great skill and wit as a writer of the old fashioned 'Boy's Own' adventure story.
However the wit and humour of the writing and the stylistic qualities of the story never get in the way or the plot which twists and turns throughout as we see Box getting out of one scrape and into another with enjoyable and exciting regularity. While still a witty plot 'The Devil In Amber' does deal with more serious themes in greater depth than the previous novel and Box is seen as a vulnerable figure regretting the loss of friends and youth in the Great War.
The blurb on the book cover describes
'The logic and drive of Sherlock Holmes blends with the seductive thrill of Hitchcock'
and this just about sums up the flavour of the book.
Although 'The Devil in Amber' is in the end a clever pastiche of many different styles and genres of past fiction this does not detract from it. It is clear from the writing that Mark Gatiss knows his subject well and has a real love for the types of books he is affectionately imitating.
One further thing to mention is the look of the book. The cover has a picture of a dashing well-groomed man clearly from the 20's/30's period holding a gun whilst hiding in the shadows and perfectly matches the premise of the book. Just as in 'The Vesuvius Club' this book is punctuated by small illustrations at the beginning or each chapter and larger sketch drawings throughout the text again reminiscent of those found in the 'Boy's Own' magazine stories or the pulp novels of the time. This is a small detail that really adds to the feel of the book.
Any fans of Gatiss from his time with the League of Gentleman could enjoy 'The Devil In Amber'; his depraved twist of the classic crime novel genre sits well with that blend of dark comedy. The story itself is strong enough to keep fans of mystery writing intrigued and entertained to the very end and fans of rollicking good adventures populated by larger than life characters such as those in the Flashman Papers will also be delighted with the novel. The nature of Box's character and associate sexual proclivities (although never too graphically illustrated) will undoubtedly have the potential to shock and offend, so morally righteous faint-hearted readers be warned!
Gatiss has promised another Lucifer Box adventure set later in his life and all the additional changes and problems that might entail for him and I for one can't wait.
The Devil In Amber by Mark Gatiss can be bought from Amazon in Paperback (256 pages) published by Pocket Books (ISBN-10: 0743483804/
ISBN-13: 978-0743483803) for £3.99 (+p&p) at the time of writing this review.