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Alien Stars: A Harry Stubbs Adventure (Volume 3) Paperback – January 27, 2017
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Stubbs plays “bombardier” to “Sergeant” Skinner, another veteran of the Great War. They perform “curious chores”, some legal, some not, for Randolph Stafford, a man in the grip of some private obsession.
Sent to toss an apartment, Skinner and Stubbs do find something curious: a carbonized corpse in a suitcase and reference to a “beetle” that Stafford and other parties, violent parties, take an interest in.
And we’re off to another quite satisfying and fresh Hambling take on H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. He doesn’t do Lovecraft pastiches. Using his experience as a popular science journalist, Hambling recasts Lovecraft stories in a modern scientific mode while keeping the 1920s setting. He also throws in some real occult lore, appropriate since he’s a regular columnist for the Fortean Times. There’s also plenty of real-life weirdness to use in the richly detailed London suburb of Norwood where the Stubbs adventures take place.
And, while there are now many Mythos tales cross-pollinated with the private eye genre, Stubbs isn’t exactly a private eye. Nor does Hambling write imitation Raymond Chandler prose (though he has done that elsewhere). Stubbs is a break from both the scholarly gentleman of Lovecraft stories and a mere detective – though Stubbs is taking correspondence courses to become one.
To say more would spoil the pleasant surprises as Hambling picks up threads from the previous two Stubbs books including a woman who has matrimonial eyes for Stubbs. The ending is not something one expects from a Mythos story.
One thing is quite clear. The Norwood of the Stubbs’ stories is the same Norwood as that in Hambling’s collection of linked stories in The Dulwich Horror & Others. The enigmatic and formidable Estelle de Vere, who shows up in two of those stories, has plenty of on-stage time here.
And I fear that one of the stories in that book hints at a bad fate for Harry in the future.
You could start with this Stubbs story, but do yourself a favor and start his adventures with the first novel, The Elder Ice.
And then move on to The Dulwich Horror & Others to see the full range of Hambling’s skill.
If you would prefer to listen to this review rather than read it you can visit: https://www.writersbeard.com/podcast/2017/4/28/episode-32-alien-stars-by-david-hambling
“Alien Stars” is the third book in the Harry Stubbs series by David Hambling. I stumbled upon David’s first book, “Elder Ice”, a few years back and made sure to keep an eye out for a continuation of the story. So now here we are, and I am talking about his third book. The third book of a series is important, at least I think so, as it really sets up whether a series has the legs to continue or it wraps up the story lines in a finale. Or, and this is unfortunately also common, this is where the series flounders. Luckily, David Hambling is a good writer and this book series only seems to be getting better.
But before I get too ahead of myself I should probably talk about the book.
This time ‘round Harry finds himself working for a new employer, and has a new partner, named Skinner. The two are tasked with tracking the whereabouts of a young woman, without really knowing more than that. When she turns up burned to a crisp in her apartment things get a little more complicated. Stubbs and Skinner set off to track down a mysterious “beetle” that was linked to the woman's death and whom their employer believes will lead him to the Holy Grail.
This book does quite a few things better than the previous stories, which shows that the author is letting Harry Stubbs grow organically and therefore can play to his strengths. The Harry Stubbs books have had a strong connection to Sherlock. They were written very similarly, which is both a boon and a hindrance. Let me explain, I am not sure how much I have talked about Sherlock in the past, but I love those stories. They are not without their faults, but by-and-large they are great. The point is they have a distinctive style that is immediately clear when someone is using them for inspiration. Because Sherlock was serialized fiction the stories always began really exposition heavy, with reintroduction of characters, themes, ideas, etc. This absolutely makes sense for a story published in a monthly pulp, as you never know if your reader has actually been reading the past stories or may not be able to get them and it is a quick way to catch them up. I don’t think that this translates well to a series of novels.
The previous two stories of this series suffered from this. The first book was heavy on exposition in the beginning and the second did the “Sherlockian re-hash” in its first chapter as well. But thankfully Hambling seems to be shaking off those Doyle shaped chains for the better. Rather than just telling you about Harry again and who this new chap Skinner is, he works it into the story as it goes. Which is how you should introduce/reintroduce a character, in my opinion. Sure there are still times when you have to spell things out for the reader but it is much less apparent in this book than in the previous iterations. For example in previous stories he would state things like “my training as a boxer allowed me to do ‘X’” or something to that nature.
We get to see Skinner get fleshed out as character in his own right and his status a foil to Stubbs’ straight-man, rather than have it simply explained to us. Which brings me to my next point. The addition of Skinner to this story was a good move by the author. Harry is kind of a melding of both Watson and Sherlock. But since he is reporter and actor he can come off as a bit dry, analytical and aloof. Of course this is a limitation of the “first-person written account” narrative style. That is why I think it was a good idea for Skinner to be a more developed character than Harry’s previous companions. In the past Harry is accompanied by a Doctor Who-esk companion on his adventures. But they tend to be simply plot devices rather than actual actors on the story. Skinner gets to add a little bit of levity and out of the box thinking that Harry lacks. That is not to say that Skinner is a perfect edition. At the end of the book when he and Harry need to find the source of tainted water he ends up being a bit of a Deus Ex Machina, just to get the story to wrap up but I can forgive that.
As far as the story itself is concerned we again see a borrowing of a classic Lovecraft plot. In “Elder Ice” we saw a play on ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ in “Broken Meats” it was ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’. And “Alien Stars” is no different. Here we have a dive into ‘The Colour Out of Space'.
I don’t mean to suggest that Hambling is simply retelling that story. This book like the others takes Lovecraft’s idea and runs with it a bit. So rather than simply just an invisible energy vampire, there is a bit more nuance to the story, a broader narrative. And one of the great things about this story is how it all comes down to interpretation. Harry views the being or creature differently that his employer and different still from a mysterious American woman who enters the fray.
I have one or two criticisms but they are fairly minor and did not hinder my enjoyment of the story. First is, as mentioned, near the end Skinner kind of just magically knows what to do to move them into the final act. The Author used the fortuitous addition of a traveling fair to help get Skinner out of the story for now but it all feels a little convenient. The other little complaint is that Hambling seems to heavy hand a possible romantic sub-sub plot. I am not against this in principle, but I felt that it was a bit obvious. However, if I stopped reading every book that was too obvious I wouldn’t be able to read anything at all.
Before I wrap up I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one more thing that I like about Hambling’s stories, this book being no exception. Each of them have a grounding in history. He introduces actual historical figures that Harry either gets to interact with or have a hand in the events he is dealing with. It is a fun way to make the story feel more real, I enjoy looking up the names of historical members of ‘The Golden Dawn’ or turn of the century explorers and mystics. It is a very minor thing, but I am a history nerd and I always try to appreciate when a story puts itself in the real world, rather than existing outside of it.
I really enjoyed this book. It is clear to me that Hambling likes his characters and is letting them come into their own as he is telling their stories. I know I have not done a full episode about how I feel about series, but this series so far avoids most of the pitfalls that drive me crazy about series.
It manages to have a clear, beginning, middle and end. It ties up all of the loose ends it needs too while still leaving you wondering what could possibly be down the road for the characters. And most importantly, that you needn't have read the other two books to enjoy reading this one. I will talk more about my snarky criteria for a good series in a future episode. But until then, if you are a Lovecraft fan and always wanted to know how his various shambling grotesqueries would fare in post WWI London, then you should do yourself a favor and pick up this book.
No cosmic horror (at least not until the climax) but just two working stiffs following up clues for their daily pay.
The knowledge of what they are up against grows slowly and builds the tension.
This writer really knows his craft and produces an excellent story.
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