I really enjoy terrible mysteries, but only a certain kind of terrible mystery. The episodic, gimmicky, pulpy kind that always feel like they were written between 1896 and 1906, whether or not they actually were.
Hamilton Cleek (not his real name) is the titular character, and the gimmick. He’s a safecracker when the book starts, but that lasts only long enough to qualify as setup. He has a change of heart re: criminal activity after falling in love at first sight, and for the rest of the book he’s a detective working with Scotland Yard.
The forty faces are all Cleek’s. He can basically twist his face into the semblance of any other face. (My brother: “That’s not how faces work.”) And then Thomas Hanshew, the author, makes him an expert in disguise, so that he can capitalize on this peculiar skill. It’s not a terribly useful skill to him, as a detective–not nearly as useful as it was when he was a safecracker, and mostly the face thing doesn’t add that much to his detective adventures.
The mysteries are short and self-contained, but the overarching story of Cleek, Ailsa Lorne, Cleek’s servant Dollops and (of course) Margot, Queen of the Apaches holds together pretty well. And when I say it holds together pretty well, I mostly mean that you don’t forget about the ongoing narrative. I mean, I guess it would be hard to, with everyone’s emotions running so high all the time. Hanshew does roughly the right things, but he always does them either a) a shade more melodramatic than you wanted, or b) a shade more melodramatic than you expected. Or, I guess, c) all of the above.
Some of the mysteries are pretty clever, and deserve better surrounding material, but I feel bad saying that, because it’s not like I didn’t enjoy the surrounding material. I mean, this is not a good book. But it’s not good in a fun way–in a way where the hero is all emotionally restrained, but it’s hard to tell because the writer really, really isn’t. And I have fun with that kind of thing. There are a lot of Cleek books–some by Hanshew, some by Hanshew and his wife, and some by their daughter–and I’m planning on reading at least a few more.
But first, a complaint. During Cleek’s criminal career, he asks the newspapers to refer to him as “The Man Who Calls Himself Hamilton Cleek.” Which, okay, whatever. They do that. But he keeps using the name Cleek, and Ailsa Lorne knows his name and was aware of him when he was a cracksman. So why is his criminal past such a revelation? A number of things in this book didn’t make sense, but that’s the one that continues to bug me.