Something I don’t really understand about a lot of urban-based fantasy is how safe and bureaucratic it makes magic and the supernatural seem. Take the comic series Fables, for instance. Your mileage may vary, but I eventually gave it up because, except for the fact that they looked weird and had certain powers, the fairy tale creatures living in America thought and acted like the cast of the average soap opera. Why chop fantasy figures down to size when you have the chance to tell a truly strange and mind-blowing story?
At the beginning of Gareth P Jones’ novel, Constable & Toop, I started to feel the same way. When people die, and their ghosts don’t go through ‘the big door’ but remain behind, haunting the earth, they are put under the authority of the Ghost Bureau, a vast spectral civil service.
Lapsewood is a timid soul who is happy to spend his afterlife at a desk, doing boring clerical work — until he is somehow re-assigned to go down to London and investigate a missing ghost, which in turn leads to an exciting and dangerous investigation of a series of missing ghosts and the strange black rot that is taking over the haunted houses left empty by their disappearance.
At the same time, Sam Toop, the son of an undertaker, a boy who can see and talk to ghosts is also starting to see strange things that eventually lead him to the trail of the same mystery. Someone else investigating missing ghosts is the girl Clara, who is drawn in when a sinister clergyman exorcises the ghost that haunts her house in a manner that feels more like murder than anything else.
For these ghosts are not simply being sent through the world beyond – they are actually being destroyed, wiped out, killed.
There is a complex and devious conspiracy at work, threatening both the dead and the living. Watching this devious plot being unravelled is one of the big thrills of this book — but it’s not the only one.
Much like in the novels of Charles Dickens, Gareth P Jones’ Victorian setting is crammed with colourful, memorable characters like Sam’s wicked uncle Jack, the irreverent ghost urchin Tanner, a ghost called the Marquis who is forever making flowery speeches, a drunken ghost, three gambling ghosts, the benevolent Mr Constable, Sam’s father’s employer, and many more.
It’s so much fun spending time in a story that is so full of characters who may be good, evil or bungling, but are just great company no matter who or what they might be in the book.
Equally important, there’s actual character development in this story, especially when it comes to meek little Lapsewood who surprises everyone including himself by rising to the occasion and finding a brave, resourceful and determined side to his personality.
Lapsewood doesn’t just hover about having his life changed and saved by various magical interventions; once he is pushed beyond a certain point, his essential decency forces him to take matters in his own hands and crack the mystery of the murdered ghosts and the weird black rot.
Remember how I started this review by complaining about stories that make the magical and supernatural seem mundane and boring? Well, that’s another great thing about this book. Lapsewood eventually realises that the whole idea of Ghost Bureau with its departments and regulations is stupid.
He embraces the idea of a more free and fascinating afterlife, one that does away with the silly trappings of red tape and self-appointed authority figures.
I usually don’t need sequels to the books I read — if a story is any good it’s self contained enough to stand on its own. But I had so much fun with the characters in this book and the world they inhabit that I would be very disappointed if Jones does not eventually write some kind of follow up to this one.
Read it for yourself and see if you agree with me!