Ah, with days to go to the Christmas special, who isn’t looking forward to the triple-whammy of a new TARDIS, a new companion, and the return of the best characters from A Good Man Goes To War? And if you can’t wait, the BBC would be delighted to offer you a prelude story, for around £1.99 or thereabout, for consumption on your new-fangled electronic reader device.
Devil in the Smoke is a short, snappy pastiche of a Sherlock Holmes adventure, starring our Paternoster trio of Madam Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax. The three are deeply bound up in a story that starts with two young street urchins (as stock street urchins as you’d expect from a Victorian pastiche) discovering a woman’s body within the snowman they’ve just created. Whats follows is a mix of detection, adventure and comedy in the Victorian style, with Richards’ close imitation of fiction of the day making for a slightly awkward read on occasions.
It’s very much in the mould of the previous eBook-only release, Doctor Who: The Angel’s Kiss, which was an effective prelude to the Angels Take Manhattan, explaining River’s involvement in the story, prior to her running into her father. Rather unfortunately, that prelude was published after the episode in question (leading many to assume it was the book featured in the story, not a prequel to it). This release hits the same notes: a short literary pastiche, some misdirection as to its links with the episode it supports, but managing to convey a complete story, while leaving threads that run into the broadcast episode.
Vastra and Flint come off as surprisingly bland in the story, given the power of their presence on screen. That’s a tribute, perhaps, to the charisma of Neve McIntosh and Catrin Stewart in the parts. That leaves the star of the book as the former Sontaran nurse, turned general factotum, Strax. He wonders perilously close to being a purely comic figure, with the single joke of his viewing everything through an inappropriate military lens always staying just the right side of wearing thin, but that’s neatly counter-balanced by some genuine moments of heroism later in the story. This is, without doubt, Strax’s book – and I’ll be intrigued to see if he’s as successful at stealing the show on TV.
The plot rolls along at a decent pace. My guess is that we’re seeing the setup of the villain from the upcoming episode, with this story serving as its early days on Earth, and explaining the involvement of the Paternoster trio. It’s the sort of thing that would be covered in a couple of lines in the show, but works passingly well as this short prelude.
For the price of a couple of quid, it’s a fun read that whets your appetite for the main event on Christmas Day. It feels a little like paying for a trailer, but the story is a complete mini-adventure, that fairly clearly leads into the beginning of the TV episode, without actually spoiling it. If Hazel were older, I could easily imagine reading a few chapters of this to her each evening, ready for the big event. And, as an adult, the Strax material is just fabulous, so I wouldn’t begrudge the process.