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It’s a Mystery: “The world is a great honeycombed thing”

Angelmaker

By Nick Harkaway
Knopf, 2012

Joshua Joseph Spork, the unassuming protagonist in Nick Harkaway’s novel Angelmaker, is an horologist by trade as was his grandfather; he crafts and repairs clocks and automata in a dilapidated warehouse on the Thames. This calm, almost mundane, life is all part of Joe’s colossal effort to stay out of the shadow of his father, the late Mathew Spork:

Joe Spork’s safe-cracking, train-robbing, art-thieving father, the Dandy of the Hoosegow, Mathew “Tommy Gun” Spork the noted gangster prince…. Chairman of the ‘Night Market’, a joyous criminal version of Portobello Road.

Matthew ran scams, cons and thefts, was universally adored by friends and associates, and kept his trademark Tommy gun well oiled and ready for use,

…because a man in his profession does not generally walk abroad without something to give people pause…. Papa Spork is completely unaware of how his banter sometimes compresses and confines his son…. Young Joshua Joseph [age 15], between bouts of hero worship and merciless inadequacy, occasionally feels that his father is laid across his shoulders like an oxen’s yoke, and that he must pull him everywhere he goes, whether his father is there or not.

By the time we meet him, Joe is a bachelor in his mid-thirties, whose orderly world dangerously implodes as he gets duped by one of his clients into activating a strange clockwork beehive. Unbeknownst to him, it’s an apian super weapon that is either a doomsday machine or a device that forces people to be completely honest with one another. In Harkaway’s mischievous view, the two are not mutually exclusive but effectively synonymous.

The client who has drawn him into what is now a nefarious web, is Edie Banister, a tough octogenarian superspy “with a bad attitude and a fine knowledge of exothermic reactions.”

Edie sent Joe the device without divulging its potential danger. And now, she’s having second thoughts:

She has webbed young Spork into a muddle of almighty proportions. It was necessary, if distasteful, and ultimately he will be fine…. There’s no danger of anything really bad happening to him. All the old ghosts are surely laid to rest.

This is debatable, especially when two punks show up to assassinate her. To their short-lived astonishment she dispatches them with world class martial arts and goes on the run with her beloved blind pug Bastion (he has two pink marbles for eyes). You’ve got to love Edie, once a good-looking spy-in-waiting, now a dotty oldster who can still defend herself. Her backstory is deliciously wicked:

She has to admit privately she may be mad…. She has not lost her marbles or popped her garters, or any of the cosier sorts of madness she had observed in her contemporaries. She has, if anything, gone postal.

And she’s left Joe in the lurch, fending off a motley crowd in search of that machine, that postwar superweapon, he unwittingly activated. And, not so incidentally, trying to grapple with his father’s legacy and save the world.

Chief among Joe’s pursuers are the “Ruskinites,” a sort of monastic pre-Raphaelite secret service now in the pay of the Opium Khan, aka Shem Shem Tsien, one of Edie’s dreaded old ghosts. He’s a blatant Bondian uber-villain whose boasting reaches epic proportions:

“Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a boy born in the nation of Addeh Sikkim, in the royal palace, who wanted nothing more than to lead his people into a new world of prosperity and hope. He was suited to the task; clever and able and well-favored.” The Opium Khan looked nostalgic.

“I locked him in a steel box and burned him alive.”

And so it goes. The plot of Angelmaker’s 500-plus pages beggars description. But, even with the mechanical bees who can mess with your soul, the automaton monks, the armored train, the submarine outfitted like an Edwardian gentleman’s club, the black-market army, the guild of undertakers—“That honored and enduring brotherhood of waiting men”—and the general genre-bending, the book doesn’t feel the least bit gimmicky. In fact, it’s marvelously old-fashioned in the best sense of that word. It’s a sprawling, irreverent, blockbuster of a novel, an apocalyptic roller coaster of a book. It’s by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, brilliantly provocative and endlessly inventive. Take this line: “I heard a noise like an accordion landing in rice pudding.”

Finally, Joe has learned,

Mathew was a refugee. Mathew came into a world that was already broken…the biggest lie was that the world worked the way it was supposed to, and having seen through it Mathew Spork was free…from destruction he drew consolation.

If Joe has his way, the end of the world will not come with a bang—apologies to Mr. Eliot: “the institutions of law and order will once more be working to their often impenetrable ends.”

And here’s the delicious rub: Harkaway doesn’t reveal how Joe manages this and because of his consummate skill, the reader isn’t cranky.

Important aside: one cannot ignore the fact that Nick Harkaway is the son of John le Carré, particularly because Angelmaker, in addition to being a novel of love, intrigue and comic adventure, is a novel about complicated heredities. It examines the relationship between a famous father and a cerebral conflicted son. See Magnus Pym in A Perfect Spy, le Carrè’s most autobiographical novel. His father, Rick, is a rogue, con man and accomplished crook not unlike Mathew Spork and every bit as charming. Rick Pym, you might say, is Harkaway’s fictional grandfather. Moreover, when his first novel The Gone-Away World was published, Harkaway wrote what has been billed as a sane and self-deprecating piece about the difficulties of entering the family business. He needn’t worry.  He is a very different kind of novelist with an exuberant prose style that is completely distinctive.

In the acknowledgements Harkaway tells us:

I grew up in a house of stories, and some of those stories were tales of crooks and criminality. Some of them were of derring-do. All of them were amazing. To everyone who sat at our table and took the time to spin a tale for a small, serious child: thank you.

Thank you, Mr. Harkaway, for this splendidly entertaining, thoroughly original read.

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Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.