I once worked with someone who rather reminded me of a tragic pelican. He had this strange, gulping way of speaking, almost as though his words were fish that he was trying to choke down, and these sad, sad eyes that are endemic amongst those employed within the public sector. He would speak at length about his rebellious past working in a library; and at any point would be reading Proust, and only Proust. So when he informed me one day that he was leaving work early to go to Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant signing I was just a touch surprised.
“Oh,” he said. With a pelicanical gulp. “My daughters really like the books. And they’re…not so bad.”
What was this? A would-be Proust scholar and tree-change snob reading books about a hero apparently afflicted with some terrible flesh eating disease? Perhaps those stats about children’s literature being bought largely by–and for–adults are actually meaningful. (Perhaps, too, adults have children as a sort of smokescreen to justify these reading habits.)
A week or so ago I was at Melbourne Central’s Little Library, a lovely little venture where patrons donate, borrow or swap books from their own collections (and which at this point is largely stocked by the enormous overflow from my own bookshelves), and happened across the distinctly colourful cover of Mr Landy’s first literary outing with his bone-headed detective hero. I nabbed it and went home to have a read.
Now, I’m not entirely as enamoured of the series as my colleague apparently was (“not so bad” was no doubt a euphemism for “best book evar!”, a phrase this fellow would likely never allow to pass his lips, not even for Proust), but it is a bit of rampaging fun incorporating endless flight and/or fight scenes, dastardly betrayals and a rather disturbingly narcissistic skull-faced man. Fans of Michael Scott’s Nicholas Flamel books will no doubt adore these, but although I can see why these appeal so much to readers (bonus points for having a villain called Nefarian Serpine, a chortle-worthy name which makes Voldemort look delightfully subtle), I struggled to engage on an emotional level with the story or its characters.
I tend not to connect with books that rattle along at a speed that seems to involve increasing G forces (I dislike the feeling of having my skin stretched back against my face when reading a book; you know how it is), and I think in large part it was the lack of breathing space in Skulduggery Pleasant that prevented me from embracing it whole-heartedly. In contrast, I do wonder whether my Proust-obsessed colleague was struck by the astonishing brevity of the novel could you imagine how a Proust-penned fight scene might play out? Over five hundred pages, probably.
My secondary issue with the book was that I felt that Stephanie (our key point of view character and Skulduggery’s new sidekick, not me talking about myself in the third person) was underdeveloped. She’s essentially the lens through which the story plays out and a backboard for Skulduggery’s endless lobbing of zingy dialogue. Hopefully given the Big Reveal regarding Stephanie’s character, we’ll see her a little more fleshed out (although the same surely can’t be expected of Skulduggery, badoom tsh) in the subsequent books, although I suspect that the forces of Supremely Action-Oriented Narrative may undermine that somewhat. Finally, I’d love to see more made of the Dublin setting: the book’s sense of place is so amorphous that it could really be set anywhere at all.
Although a Proust-Landy mashup is unlikely to be on the horizon, I would love to see the next outing involve the nibbling of madeleines over dialogue such as:
“Are you looking for a secret passageway?”
“You watch too many haunted-house movies,” [Skulduggery] said.
“But are you looking for a secret passageway?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “But that’s just a coincidence.”
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