The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs
by James P. Blaylock
Cover Artist: J. K. Potter (also interior illustrations)
Review by Gayle Surrette
Subterranean Press Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596063655
Date: 30 June 2011 List Price $35.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs is steampunk without the steam -- but with all the energy -- with the distinctly Victorian feeling of a tale of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle. Major difference between the two is that Professor Langdon St. Ives while displaying all the traits of Doyle's detective is also married. St. Ives, like fictional character Bull Drummond, works closely with his man Hasbro and friend Jack Owlesby. That doesn't mean that he understands women any better than Holmes, but luckily his wife is strong, resilient, and can stand on her own.
The story opens as St. Ives, Hasbro, and Owlesby are dining at a local eatery when their friend, Tubby Frobisher, staggers in acting very strangely. They invite Tubby to join them and his tale jolts St. Ives out of his despair that his wife may leave him because he put a friend's problems above their vacation. This section also sets the mood of being very Victorian where just about every situation could be solved by the judicious application of scientific principles.
Indeed Tubby's tale is one that would cause any scientific oriented gentleman to take notice. It seems that just that evening everyone at the Explorer's Club went insane and then just as abruptly came back to themselves finding that they'd behaved badly. Luckily no one was killed during this mayhem. St. Ives immediately begins to put forth and discard possible causes for such an occurrence. It's an exercise, no more, until he finds that his wife, Alice, has not returned from her visit to Heathfield.
Thus starts the tale of a mysterious madness that affects large groups, a missing wife, traveling salesmen, lighthouse keepers, bird watching, missing equipment, the return of an old nemesis, blackmail, and treason. Blaylock manages to set the scene and mood, ramp up the tension, and lead us from clue to clue. He manages all this while keeping the reader in the dark much as the associates of St. Ives are left to wonder what he knows that they don't.
The feeling is very much of menace and danger where any misstep on the part of these men could lead to the downfall of their country and the loss of many lives. The fast pace of the story somehow makes it feel like a much longer work because the writing pulls you in and keeps you there until the final climax and resolution.
Subterranean Press has produced a beautifully designed book with lovely mood-setting interior artwork. Samples of the artwork is viewable at the book's page on the Subterranean website (see our links section).
If you haven't read Blaylock before, this is a good place to start, particularly if you enjoy steampunk and/or mysteries. If you are a fan of Blaylock's writing, you'll want to add this to your collection.