This madcap Victorian adventure is hysterical from beginning to end. Third rate poet Lionel Savage has been unhappy since getting married. Though he fell hard for his beautiful and vivacious wife, marital life just doesn’t seem to be working for them. She has become aloof and he can no longer find inspiration. He tends to brood in his massive library and winges to his wry butler Simmons (Think Jeeves and Wooster).
One night, he escapes the masquerade party his wife is throwing for a few minutes of quiet in his study, when another man joins him. Assuming he is a fellow trapped soul, the two strike up a conversation. Soon, the man reveals himself to be none other than Old Scratch himself. He sets a few things straight (Hell is called Essex Grove and Dante Alighieri is the gardener there) about his reputation as a fire and brimstone demon and then asks to borrow a copy of The Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
I scratch my head. I have reason to believe I am standing in my study hiding from the guests of a fancy dress party conducting an interview with the Devil, but some reason there does not seem to be anything particularly odd about it. He is very polite, and I am very polite, and what more I expect I cannot say. ~Pg. 56
Frontispiece to chapter two entitled: In Which My Sister Returns from School for Reasons Best Omitted, & I am Forced to Deliver Her to a Previously Unmentioned Piece of Intelligence
Before leaving, Savage tells The Prince of Darkness of his inability to write poetry anymore and his disappointment in his marriage. The two realize that they each need a friend and the Devil asks if he can come back and visit from time to time. It’s all very matter-of-fact. The following morning when Lionel’s wife is missing, he can only assume the Devil took her in order to return the favor.
What follows is a bumbling, endearing, and ill-fated quest to go to Essex Grove and get her back. Lionel enlists the help of his enlightened sister Lizzie, a world-famous explorer (who also happens to be his brother-in-law), a weird bookstore owner, and an eccentric inventor. All the while he becomes increasingly depressed about the situation and is prone to bouts of dreadful melancholic poetry.
I pass illuminated house-fronts which grin at me maniacally through the fog, gaslight blazing from their windows. It is a dark afternoon (the sun for sorrow will not show its face), and the lamp-posts are being lit. I tip my hat to the lamplighters. I hurry past the smell of clustered humanity. I still find perverse poetry in it all, even the sewage in the gutters and garbage in the street. I do not know what is wrong with me. ~Pg. 114
The book is written as a memoir by Lionel but it is edited by his estate lawyer, Hubert Lancaster, Esq., who inserts snarky footnotes along the way. The book is peppered with literary jokes and allusions. Even the beautiful illustrations are infused with inside jokes.
This book is both snort-out-loud funny and tickle-your-brain funny. Plus, it’s an entertaining adventure. I’m already hoping Leo gets the team back together for another ridiculous quest. There’s probably some manuscript that the British Library needs stolen or something. Just an idea.
My thanks to Juli with Penguin Press for the review copy.
By Forrest Leo
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Penguin Press (August 16, 2016)
Artwork by Mahendra Singh throughout