Monday, July 6, 2009

Book Review: The Frankenstein Murders

The Frankenstein Murders is a fine first novel by Ottawa writer Kathlyn Bradshaw. For those who have read and loved Mary Shelley's Frankenstein it provides a fascinating look back at the events of that novel as well as an interesting continuation of the macabre tale of death and life that first electrified readers nearly two hundred years ago.

The novel is framed as an investigation into the death of Henry Clerval. As described in Shelley's original, Henry was one of Victor Frankenstein's dearest friends. Shortly after the "birth" of the monster, Victor suffered a mental collapse and it was he, Henry, who nursed Victor back to health. Later Henry accompanied Victor on his journeys, only to be strangled on the shores of Ireland by the terrible creature. Now, several years after the murder, the journal of Captain Robert Walton finds itself in the hands of Henry's father, George Clerval. The senior Clerval does not fully believe the fantastic tale captured in Walton's journal and thus decides to hire a private investigator to determine the true identity of his son's killer.

Edward Freame is the investigator hired. Freame has worked several cases that allegedly involved the paranormal and has always managed to discover the rational truth behind the seemingly fantastic. Recently Freame solved a very high-profile London crime which had at first had been explained away as an unfortunate bout of spontaneous combustion. Through a series of deductions Freame exposed the crime and identified the criminal. Think Sherlock Holmes with a dash of Fox Mulder.

Freame reads and re-reads the story of Frankenstein's life as captured in Walton's journal. He decides that in order to uncover the truth he must retrace the path taken by Victor Frankenstein immediately following the creation of the monster years before. This journey takes Freame through Scotland, the Orkney Islands, Ireland, Geneva (home of Castle Frankenstein), Evian (where Frankenstein and his new bride spent their first, and last, evening as man and wife), Ingolstadt (where the creature was brought to life), and the north of Russia. By day Freame interviews various characters who appeared in Shelley's original, and by night he ruminates on the identity of the murderer and tries to decipher the complex character of Victor Frankenstein. Throughout much of the novel Freame expresses mostly frustration at his lack of progress in the investigation due to the lack of information he has gleaned from most of his interview subjects. Are they hiding a dark truth, or is the truth simply buried too deep in the past? Then about two thirds through the book, Freame uncovers a bombshell that may break the case.

The novel proceeds at a deliberate pace. The author wisely employs a variety of techniques to tell the tale -- Freame's interviews and journal entries are interspersed with newspaper clippings and letters from both the present and the past. Chapters are kept short. At 300 pages the novel is not Clavellian by any means, yet it is perhaps a few dozen pages too long. There are a surfeit of passages wherein Freame laments his lack of progress in the investigation, and no doubt one or two of the less interesting interviews could have been excised.

The book is dotted with several mysteries which keep the reader intrigued as Freame's investigation slowly proceeds. From whence came the scars that cover the face and body of Freame's partner, Mutt? Why does Freame so resemble Victor Frankenstein that his appearance startles many who had known Victor in the past? Why have the cottages of villagers who briefly lived near Frankenstein in the Orkneys recently undergone expensive renovations? Who attacked Freame in Ingolstadt? Why have so many of Walton's crew died since their return from the north? Unfortunately although some of these questions are indirectly answered by the end of the book, others are left unaddressed. It is unclear whether these dangling threads were simply intended as red herrings or were part of a plot that was at some point abandoned.

The author writes in an engaging style. Some of the language and structure hearken back to the original novel, although the writing is far less verdant than Shelley's poetically dense prose. The description of a macabre discovery made by Freame in Frankenstein's castle is particularly well handled. The pages detailing Freame's ultimate conclusion regarding the true identity of the murderer are also finely crafted. A brief epilogue provides a fittingly nebulous end to the novel. Less successful are the short preface which provides an unnecessarily oblique and somewhat overwritten beginning, and a couple of passages in which Freame's musings about inconsistencies in Frankenstein's story read more like criticism of Shelley's plotting.

A principle enjoyment of the novel lies in our re-acquaintance with several of the characters that populated Shelley's original. We meet Mrs. Margaret Saville, Captain Walton's concerned sister. We visit again with Magistrate Kirwin, who presided over the trial which initially convicted Frankenstein of Henry Clerval's murder. We hear from Daniel Nugent, who discovered Henry's body. We visit the Frankenstein castle. We meet with Captain Robert Walton and some of his crew. We even speak with Captain Ernest Frankenstein, brother to Victor and poor William. In addition, Freame provides insights into other characters from Shelley's tome, principly Victor, Victor's parents, Henry, Elizabeth, and little William. The reader becomes fully engaged as Freame's analytical mind grapples with the extraordinary events described in Walton's journal. He finally arrives at the only logical explanation -- but is truth necessarily governed by logic?

For fans of the original Frankenstein novel, The Frankenstein Murders is a must-read. It revisits the characters and settings that made the original great, reveals secrets that Victor Frankenstein has long concealed, and introduces new characters who move the Frankenstein story forward in an interesting and original way.

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