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‘It’s not as if I’d expect you to tell me the truth, dear boy. My readers don’t give a damn about the truth. They just want a good story with someone they can cheer for. We could even make you look good.’ He glanced at Pyke and shrugged. ‘Or bad, if you wanted to be bad. Good or bad. Just not both at the same time. It confuses people. They can’t work out whether to shout for the man or rail against him.’

Anti-heroes and noir fiction detectives go hand in hand. That moral equator gets crossed so many times, the reader is left wondering if the book’s protagonist is possessing of any morality at all. The best kinds of anti-heroes, to my mind at least, are those who possess a sort of bruised romanticism. Once they believed in a better future, but the present has consistently disabused them of that notion. Death-dealing ‘antiheroes’, such as say John Rambo, launch themselves across that moral line without a second thought. For them killing is something that barely needs to be rationalized as a ‘necessary evil’.

It is obvious that the different forms of anti-hero makes for attractive protagonists in any genre, hence Elric, or Thomas Covenant in fantasy and the Stainless Steel Rat in science fiction. In The Last Days of Newgate, author Andrew Pepper suggests a very early progenitor of the trope – Machiavelli’s classic political satire The Prince. For the purposes of this novel, however, he meets the reader halfway, introducing us to a typical Private Eye type named Pyke, who happens to live in 1820’s London.

Of course Pyke is not known as a private detective in this era. Instead he plies his trade as a thief-taker working for the Bow Street Runners. He also enjoys a small sideline in selling on stolen goods that he was unable to secure a reward for recovering. In fact the very first page of this book has him being attacked by a criminal associate, an Irishman known as Michael Flynn in a double-cross. As this is sectarian London, with Daniel O’Connell’s calls for Catholic emancipation inspiring riots in the streets between Protestants and Irish immigrants. Merely knowing Michael Flynn is enough for Pyke to be suspected of unseemly behavior, but the captured criminal is not helping for confessing everything about his partner’s role in his fence operation.

It is a time of great change in London. In addition to the proposal to give rights to Catholics under British law, the politicians are also debating the creation of a Metropolitan police force. This would of course render the Bow Street Runners null and void. In what seems like his last job, an ordinary investigation lands Pyke in the middle of a gruesome murder. The victims are initially identified as a Protestant couple, which causes further riots within the city. Pyke realizes that a patsy suspect will be accused in order to sate the anger of a bloodthirsty public. In his pursuit of the truth, he has to journey from London to Belfast and back, not to mention the little matter of a jail break.

This book captures the pre-Victorian era with an impressive degree of period detail and mixes in a plot strongly reminiscent of Mike Hammer. Occasionally characters quote Machiavelli to let us know this is not low-brow material, but by the same token it is great fun to see Pepper ducking and weaving through the associations.

Most impressive is how the sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants is mapped onto the familiar themes of race hatred from American detective fiction. By doing so Pepper cleverly establishes the extent of the conflict between the two religions, with the British Home Secretary at one point casually stating I believe the Irish race to be an inferior one’.

This is also a book about the gulf between classes. Pyke’s ability to mingle with land owning aristocrats as well as pub brawlers marks him out as an anomaly. He enjoys partaking of laudanum and has little respect for women – but holds himself to an unusual moral code, despite being informed by his study of Machiavelli. In that he regards himself as superior to the men who rule Britain with an uncaring pragmatism, as well as the folk of his childhood whom he can barely relate to anymore.

This book is fascinating in its mixture of genres and informed by an incisive approach to the historical period.

“I am a vampire and a murderer. Whatever else I do in this world, nothing will change that. I can fight on the side of the angels until doomsday, but I’m still damned.”

Some months ago I spotted this book on the shelves of a bookstore in Wollongong. I knew I had to read it, for the title alone. However, I was not prepared to pay thirty dollars for the dubious pleasure. I am a bad taste nut. Two of my favourite shows are Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. I have my limits though. So it was with great relief that I spotted this book in my local library.

Nathaniel Cade was a sailor on a whaling vessel in 1867. Upon reaching America, he was found in the ship’s hold feeding on the bodies of two other crewmen. He was arrested and sentenced to death, only to be pardoned by the then President of the United States Andrew Johnson. Cade was committed to an asylum for the rest of his days. This, believe it or not, is a story not too dissimilar from actual events.

However, in this universe, that was only the official tale. Cade was instead pledged to serve the office of the President and defend the country itself from threats both internal and from ‘out there’. He has acted in this capacity for over a century and his existence is highly classified.

Now Cade’s services are being called on to protect America from a new threat, an army of unstoppable soldiers created by a conspiracy between Muslim extremists and a familiar foe from the days of the Third Reich. His new partner, Zach Barrows, is a brash and overconfident White House staffer with a lot to learn. The cocky young man has been drafted in to replace Agent Griffin, the vampire’s liaison with the White House for over thirty years and his only friend. Griff has been diagnosed with cancer, leaving Cade to break in his new handler while also looking to prevent the greatest terrorist attack on the United States since 9/11.

This is a very silly book, but also a readable one. Partly this is due to Christopher Farnsworth dropping various easter eggs for fans. Zach comments that Cade’s lair resembles the Batcave;  the two carry recognizable aliases such as Agent Cushing and Agent Lee (although for the joke to really work, the names should have been reversed); there is an enemy operative named G. Morrison; and the evil Nazi scientist at the centre of the plot is a pastiche of Victor Frankenstein and Herbert West.

Also, in fairness to Farnsworth, the plot does race along at a steady pace, retaining the reader’s interest until the climactic finale. By then several problems have already sprung up though.

Firstly I find the post-9/11 references somewhat offensive. The Muslim extremists behind the plot to attack America are not just Islamofascists – they are Satanists also. Cade berates himself for not stopping 9/11 from happening, as he was delayed by an opponent with a flaming sword. This is nonsensical, as the attacks on the Two Towers were due mainly to a failure to properly monitor intelligence on the activities of Osama bin Laden. Implying that an otherworldly force of some kind was acting in concert with the terrorists both excuses the failures of that administration, as well as offers up the basic fantasy that America’s other war, here named the War on Horror, supersedes the current conflict in the Middle East. The mixing of fantasy with this very real tragedy is, to my mind, inexcusable.

Sadly toe-curling chauvenism is evident with the female characters that appear. There is also the issue that this is derivative of other franchises, such as Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Farnsworth’s epilogue to Blood Oath sets up a number of plot-threads for a sequel, but a movie is apparently also in the works. This is somewhat unfortunate, as the Zach character’s role is identical to that of Agent John Myers in Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of Hellboy.

I would have preferred it if Griff had been the main character and narrator of the story. He vanishes for large sections of the book and his relationship with Cade struck me as a more interesting one.

To sum up this is a perfect book to read on a plane journey. Keep your expectations low and your brain on silent.

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