Sunday, May 16, 2010

Barnaby Grimes: Phantom of Blood Alley by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

Barnaby Grimes is a Tick-Tock Lad, a messenger who runs messages or delivers packages through the whole city for a fee. The name comes because the faster the message is delivered, the more he gets paid. "Tick-tock, Time is money". Barnaby is a High-stacker, meaning he travels over the rooftops instead of using the street, a vastly more efficient means of transport.

Today he is at the behest of a friend of his friend, Ralph Booth-Prendergast, who has asked Barnaby to look in on his old governess, Clarissa Oliphant. She has a problem, and asked for the help of Ralph, and he suggested Barnaby. Miss Oliphant lives in a very upscale section of town, and her problem concerns her brother, Laurence. Laurence was interested in Photography, but an accident with chemicals scarred him, and changed his personality, Now, every day, he leaves the house for hours, but he will not tell her where he goes or what he does there. Miss Oliphant wants Barnaby to follow her brother and learn what he is doing.

Barnaby darts out to the rooftops and follows Laurence Oliphant, and notices that something truly is wrong with the young man. Not only does he bundle up so that the merest sliver of his face is visible, but on the way to his destination, he trips an old man into the street, right into the path of an oncoming coach. Barnaby would like to stop and help, but he's committed to following Laurence Oliphant.

Eventually, Laurence comes to a place known as Blood Alley, a place where tanneries and chemical factories once thrived. The output from them ran down the stones of the alley, red as blood, from which the place got its name.. There, Barnaby sees the young man duck into a building, and he descends to street level to see if he can figure out what Laurence is doing in there. But instead, a strange horribly scarred face sees him through the window when a dog penned up in the back yard nearly kills him.

He manages to get away, and before he goes back to Madame Oliphant, he sees a cat in trouble in a precarious perch and stops to help it, losing, at his cost, most of his vest. The woman who owns the cat wants to reward him, and offers to sew him a new vest in thanks for saving her cat. While he's there, he also meets a friend of his, Will Farmer, who has invented a new contraption for getting around, which he calls a "Wheelboard", made from the top of a piano and four spoked wheels with thick iron axles (essentially, a skateboard).

Barnaby admires the new invention, and finds out that Will is interested in the seamstress's daughter. On the way back to Miss Oliphant's, he stops in to see his friend Professor Pinkerton-Barnes, and helps him with a toothache before accepting a cup of tea and talking about photography. He learns that an old colleague of Professor Barnes, Dean Henry Dodson, was the one who did a great deal to bring the profession to life and acceptance. The problem has never been taking the picture, but instead, in making it last. Most photographers have to deal with the fact that their art tends to be amazingly transitory.

Barnaby spends so long talking with the professor, that he doesn't get back to Miss Oliphant's until after dark. She is very happy to see him again, and listens with concern about her brother and where he has been and what he may be doing. As they talk, Laurence returns, and she pays Barnaby and sends him out. The Housemaid, Tilly, who has let Barnaby in, says that they are going to have one of their rows and it frightens her when they argue.

Barnaby listens and overhears Laurence complain that his sister won't give him money from her retirement bonus from her last employer. Miss Oliphant was a duelling governess, who both protected her young charges and taught them to duel. In addition to a store of gold sovereigns, she has a wonderful duelling sword, a Dalmatian. Laurence steals the sword and leaves the house, and soon after, so does Barnaby.

The next morning, he comes back, and Miss Oliphant says her brother hasn't returned, and wants Barnaby to lead her to where he has been spending his time. When he does, they find the neighborhood and the police gathered around the same door. A man, presumed to be Laurence, has been killed, being dunked into a tank of caustic and then a Dalmatian duelling sword stuck in his chest.

Miss Oliphant presents herself and identifies herself, and the detective on the case has questions to ask both her and Barnaby. But when he hears about the tension between herself and her brother, and the fact that it is *her* duelling sword in his chest, he thinks she killed him and arrests her for the crime. Barnaby, however, is convinced she didn't kill her brother and promises to look into it and find out who really killed him. He also inherits a dog, the mistreated hound who nearly killed him in the back yard. Barnaby manages to calm it and bring out its former manners, then takes it home with him.

Barnaby goes to Miss Oliphant's house to tell Tilly what happened, and she is terrified. Someone broke into the house, and there was a great deal of crashing, and now her mistresses savings are gone, her strongbox broken into and emptied. Barnaby takes Tilly to the home of a relative and goes to interview Miss Oliphant in prison, where she gives him the names of four men who might have wanted to kill or harm him.

A greater mystery, though, is brewing, for the same men who had some connection to Laurence Oliphant and might have had cause to harm him are dying. Barnaby manages to interview them before their deaths, and finds out that Laurence Oliphant had discovered a new method of photogravure, called an oliphantype, after his name, of course. When he did, he told his patron, the painter Sir Crispin Blears, that his invention would replace painting. This infuriated Blears, who was himself a painter, and he cut Laurence Oliphant off from funding. Laurence was enraged, and told Blears that he would be sorry.

Not only is Blears dead, pushed into the path of an oncoming Lorry, but the servant who witnessed the accident said that the man who did it disappeared once his cloak fell off, but his story was dismissed as being too fantastic. Barnaby continues on, investigating the man who Laurence Oliphant got the chemicals from for his Oliphantypes, but shortly afterwards, the man's chemist shop is blown up, and he dies of his injuries, but not before the man says he saw matches being lit and the sound of someone's breathing, but there was no one there!

Nor is ordinary life without its own problems. When going wheelboarding with Will Farmer, Barnaby is convinced to try out the steepest hill in Centennial Park, and hits a bump that isn't there and takes a spill. Though he's not harmed, he wonders what he could have hit- there was nothing there to see.

The other two names on Barnaby's list are Laurence Oliphant's former assistant, and Dean Henry Dodson. The assistant blames the chemicals Laurence Oliphant was inhaling for the change in his personality, and Dean Henry Dodson has a note on his door saying he is taking an extended vacation from his teaching duties. But could one of them be behind the murders? And how can a man murder so many people while remaining unseen? Can Barnaby catch the murderer before the murderer catches Barnaby, whom he also seems to have a grudge for?

I love this series. So far, we've had werewolves, zombies, evil undead, and now, an invisible man. I liked how the title played off not only the invisibility, but linked it to another great piece of Victorian Literature, the Phantom of the Opera. And in truth, the villain of the book shares a number of things in common with both characters- like the Invisible Man, he's crazy, and like the Phantom, horribly disfigured.

In truth, there is another likeness as well- the pictures of Laurence Oliphant in the book reminded me of the iconic images of the Shadow, complete with the big hat and the scarf around the face, and the pulled-up coat collar (although the Shadow wasn't scarred). Truth be told, I love the character of Barnaby Grimes as well. He's smart, and though he may not be completely book-learned, he reads and puts to use what he reads- one can only hope his readers come to feel the same way about reading that he does! He's also quite brave, agile, and fit, attributes that come in very useful in his job, and when chasing monsters.

It's never stated quite how old Barnaby is, or what city it is he lives in, astute readers will know that he is somewhere in the 13 to 15 range and that the city is London. Places like Hartley Square and Riverhythe mimic London places like Harley Square and Rotterhithe. The writing in these books is exceptionally vivid. Both Barnaby, and the authors have an eye for image and line, and it's easy to imagine yourself in Barnaby's great city, both the upperclass places and the teeming slums, or Highstacking over the roofs of the city, smelling the fresh air and basking in the sunlight with him.

This book, and this series, are quite incredible. Though written generally for boys, Barnaby may well appeal to girls as well. So far, he's pursued any number of young ladies in his books, though none of them make more than one appearance so far. The only recurring characters are Will Farmer, another young Tick-Tock lad, and Professor Pinkerton-Barnes, or "PB". These books are fairly short, and excellent, exciting reads. Highly recommended.

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