'Angelmaker' by Nick Harkaway

The title alone made me want to read this. That, and the promise of clockwork bees. At 566 pages (ignore the thing below, it's wrong), it was set to keep me quiet for a while, and indeed it did. But still less than a week, because I couldn’t put it down.

Nick Harkaway is the son of one John le Carré, but I didn’t know this when I began reading. Not that it would have made any difference if I had - I’ve never read anything by le Carré as it doesn’t seem to be my thing.

Anyway, from the first page, it was properly funny. The protagonist is a character named Joshua Joseph Spork, son of Mathew ‘Tommy Gun’ Spork and grandson of Daniel Spork. Joe, like his grandfather, is a clockworker, whereas his father was a notorious crook. However, he seems to have had a decent relationship with his dad, who would, nonetheless and with good reason, never ever let Joe play with his gun.

Joe is friends with a dodgy character called Billy Friend, an undertaker who also deals in, well, stuff. He’s in a good position, after all, to know about recent house clearances. He brings Joe something, which he calls a doodah, to fix. There is something that makes it work, which Billy calls a whojimmy. We don’t know, at this stage, what it is, but it looks like a beehive.

Shortly after meeting Joe, we meet Edie Banister, a feisty old lady who keeps a scrawny, smelly pug in her handbag. The pug is called Bastion, and he has pink glass eyes. However, his blindness does not prevent him from hanging on, tightly, to the crotches of anyone who visits Edie in her flat. Neither does the fact he has only one tooth. He rather suits Edie, in fact, as we find out quickly that she’s led quite a life and won’t tolerate bullshit.

At this stage, the relationship between Joe and Edie is unclear, but Edie being canny, she plays the dotty old bag when three burly guys turn up in her living room and threaten to kill her. Bastion, of course, helps, but it’s the shotgun which really makes the difference. Edie may be many things, but dotty isn’t one of them.

I really, really don’t want to tell you any more about the plot. It would spoil a cracking read and that would be a crying shame. But I can tell you that it involves, yes, clockwork bees, as well as a Second World War spy, an evil Asian dictator, a science genius, a train, a submarine, torture, a madhouse, murder, London crooks (long known to be the best), an order of monks (corrupted) and government agents. And a nun.

It’s a truly weird book. It was said, in a quote at the beginning of the book, that fans of Neil Gaiman and Jasper Fforde would like it. I can see why. Much of the time, I was thinking, aha, yes, the author has, quite obviously, read Neverwhere. And there are certain aspects of the book which also convince me that he’s read Jasper Fforde, as well. No bad thing, of course, unless those comparisons (in my opinion) were unfavourable. They’re not. Near the end, I was halfway convinced that the author is also a fan, as I am, of the BBC’s Hustle. When a book is compared openly to other works of genius, it invites criticism. It really does. But Nick Harkaway, despite an irritating habit of using a lot of words I had to look up because I didn’t know what the fuck they meant, is a good writer. And that counts for a hell of a lot.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this book consists of 566 pages, so it seems to be a long book, and indeed it is, but it doesn’t seem that way when you’re reading it, because it’s such fun, and you care for the characters (I was especially fond of Edie and Bastion) because, in the face of everything that’s thrown at them, they remain entirely human. Joe’s relationship with Edie is revealed some way in, but he himself doesn’t find out till very late in the proceedings. And in spite of the dog being in there, I suspect, purely for comic effect, it works very well, because so many of the funny moments in the book involve Bastion and the plot is so heavy and convoluted that the comic relief is needed so the reader can take a quick breath before moving on.

And what’s with the clockwork bees? You may well ask. But I’m not going to tell you. You’ll just have to read it and see.