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Johannes Cabal, the Detective [book, review] - Elf M. Sternberg
Johannes Cabal, the Detective [book, review]
Johannes Cabal: The Detective is the follow-on book to Jonthan L. Howard's Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer. Cabal is the necromancer of the title, a psychopathic little man in the pale, blond tradition of Elric or Dexter, obsessed in his own little way, like Victor Frankenstein, with uncovering the secrets of Life with a capital L, and woe betide those who get in his way. Necromancy is a condemned subject, and those who practice it are summarily executed, but Cabal isn't interested in raising armies of the dead or extracting obscure secrets, so he doesn't understand why people dislike him. Still, as so many people seem to want to shoot him he's gotten better at shooting back. As he himself puts it, he is a scientist "in the ongoing march of humanity from protoplasm to— I don't know, to be honest. Something slightly better than protoplasm would be a start."

I haven't read The Necromancer, and I didn't need to. Howard has written a wonderful little steampunk adventure with its own rules of science, magic, and the universe at large, as Cabal is arrested attempting to steal an obscure book on Necromancy from a library in some obscure Teutonic princedom-turned-republic, has a thrilling escape, and winds up on a quasi-zeppelin luxury liner fever-dreamedly mixed with the SHIELD helicarrier circa 1988, on which murders, assaults, and intrigues lead our anti-hero into a quagmire of personal and political webs. He meets a charming old foe who becomes something of an ally, and an excellent foil for conversation and quippery.

Quippery is at the heart of this book. Howard has a problem: he never met a cliche' he didn't like, and he'll use them at the drop of a hat. I winced, repeatedly, as expressions and metaphors long drained of vitality, much like Cabal's subjects, meandered across the page. And yet, if you forgive Howard his laziness, you'll get past them all for a rollickingly funny story about a high-functioning and brilliant psychopath working his way with relentless logic from one end of a conundrum to the other. Conversation is wicked, pointed, and hilarious; Cabal's own thoughts morbidly precise and smile-inducing.

Aside from cliche's, Howard occasionally head-hops without much warning. His book is rife with anachronisms, as when Cabal raids several morgues clearly run by men much more modern than the clothing, language, and setting imply. But these are actually quibbles. It could have been a much more precise book, I suppose, but it would be hard to imagine the precision necessary to all the fun it provides.

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