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“I could open the case, have a peek, and sneak out again. Just a peek. No one would know…”

Uncle Dougie's Suitcase, Alastair Chisholm

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Houses Borders Ghosts
The Minutes of the Lazarus Club is a story of murder and espionage in industrial nineteenth-century London, the kind of thing that some people call a “gaslight romance”. The central character, George Phillips, is a doctor at St Thomas’s hospital, but the novel’s being sold on a supporting cast that includes Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Florence Nightingale, and even Charles Darwin. Tony Pollard is a well-regarded historian and archaeologist, but how well does he fare when he brings the historical elements into a work of fiction?

A real danger for historians and other academics when they try writing fiction is the tendency to overload the narrative with facts and trivia. The story forgotten, they launch into a technical description of an object or a brief treatise on some aspect of the period, making the reader feel as though they’ve fallen through a hole in the story and landed on somebody’s lecture notes. This is a pitfall that Pollard largely avoids, though: after some early wobbles (the early chapters set in the hospital have some very informative dialogue in them), he does a good job of keeping things relevant to the story, and the historical information serves to colour the goings-on, rather than distract from them.

But while Pollard gets the atmosphere and description just right, The Minutes of the Lazarus Club suffers from a vagueness in the storyline itself. The plot has too many threads, most of which come and go without reaching any solid dramatic resolution, and the dramatic tension also suffers because the protagonist has nothing really to lose. Pollard has made some effort to draw Phillips more inexorably into the story, but his motivations are always too tenuous. There’s a suggestion that he might be implicated in the murders, but this is never really developed to the point of a crisis, and is eventually disposed of almost as an afterthought. Later, we’re supposed to believe that he’s hooked on avenging the killing of a man he met for maybe five minutes. As a result, our narrator spends much of the book getting in and out of trouble with no real motivation; he’s got nothing at stake himself, and doesn’t even have any strong connection to the characters that do. And when the protagonist could theoretically walk away from the story without losing anything, the reader will often feel the same way.

Even the third-person prologue, in which the body is discovered by a boatman, seems like it’s been added later in order to reassure the reader that there’s murder and drama on the way.

The Minutes of the Lazarus Club, then, could have used one more good edit, to tighten up the plot, shave off 100 pages or so, and give its protagonist a little more to lose. In all, though, this isn’t a failure as a debut novel. Within the first couple of hundred pages, Pollard masters the art of blending factual information with action, and I suspect that by the time his next novel is finished, he’ll have his pacing and conflict management in hand too. (There are already some fine set-pieces in this novel.) All of which means that while The Minutes of the Lazarus Club is too flawed to be a great historical adventure in itself, it does suggest that there may be some good things to come from Tony Pollard.

7 Comments on “The Minutes of the Lazarus Club by Tony Pollard”

  1. Petulia Says:

    Thank you! :-)

  2. John Self Says:

    Not my sort of book, I suspect, but I’m just pleased to see a new post from you! The packaging of the book is interesting. It looks as though it’s seeking to combine the Boris Akunin historical collage cover with the Caleb Carr/Jed Rubenfeld period monochrome look, and add a bit of Dante Club glamour to the title.

  3. Rob Says:

    Petu, you’re welcome!

    Hi John, I know, I’m sorry for the delay. I really need to build up a few novella reviews so that I can keep refreshing content when I don’t have time to do something longer.

    I think you’re exactly right about the positioning of the book. I’ve actually got a soft spot for this kind of thing when it’s done well—which The Minutes of the Lazarus Club very nearly is.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome back, Rob. I’d presumed you were doing France and was expecting a complete French reading list. I’m sure it will arrive eventually.

  5. Rob Says:

    Actually, Kevin, the French reading list may be a little bit of a non-starter for the moment at least. I will be checking out the Canadian bookshop next week, though, so watch this space for what I find (or don’t find) there…

  6. did Says:

    3rd novel will be ok. Conspiracy of paper it aint. They all learn. i love this sh*te. Roots, an all that no wa I’m sayin?

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    He sounds more a writer to keep an eye on than one to read right now, it’s a shame, I’m quite partial to the odd Gaslight romance (I’m fond of Lee Jackson’s work in that regard) but they’re a mixed bunch as a genre. I wrote up The Necropolis Railway a while back, which was also rather flawed. I’ve got a bit shy of them since and I don’t think this will be the one to tempt me back in.

    For the curious, Mr Jackson does operate a rather marvellous website of Victoriana at http://www.victorianlondon.org/ which is worth a look if you enjoy this sort of thing.

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