“If every man who receives a cheque for a story which owes its springs to Poe were to pay tithe to a monument for the master, he would have a pyramid as big as that of Cheops.” –Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The above quotation is what the reader of James McCreet’s The Incendiary’s Trail will encounter just before the novel’s opening cry of “Murder!” However, while Poe’s influence is evident, reading The Incendiary’s Trail as often brought to mind two other writers: Dickens and Edward Gorey. Dickens, for the self-aware melodrama; Gorey, for the deadpanned macabre humor — and sense of the absurd.
The Incendiary’s Trail is a Victorian crime novel that opens with the murder of two-headed Eliza-Beth, an “unfortunate bicephaloid” who is part of “a freak show”:
Two red-haired heads presented themselves; two slender necks descended to one body with two arms and two legs. But only the left throat bore a gaping wound that had emptied a body’s worth of blood over the front of her dress, soaking it to an almost uniform black in the light of the police lamp.
From there, we are led into a blackmail plot that litters bodies across London’s streets, “thick with smoke” and “pungent with equine effluvia,” while a pyromaniac villain (and blackmailer) is hunted down by criminal mastermind Noah Dyson, himself blackmailed by police into working with them, as only he, Dyson, is the equal of the man they are trying to capture.
It’s both well-written and well-plotted, and McCreet mostly pulls off the neat trick of creating an (almost) omniscient narrator who is also a minor character — a journalist who is chronicling the events of the story. The narrator is a character not in the sense that he is present in the story (though, on one occasion, he is), but in that his “character” is evident on every page; and it’s one you want to spend time with. At least I did.
And here’s what matters most: as the end approached, I had to slow down and force myself to read every word and not race to the end to discover the outcome. The final scenes, which involve a masked ball in which Dyson hunts for the villain while the police hunt for him, as well as a hot air balloon chase, are worth the price of admission alone.
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