Ghosts of Manhattan – George Mann

Ghosts of Manhattan - coverI read one of George Mann’s previous novels The Affinity Bridge last year. It wasn’t particularly good, and I didn’t even find it a particularly entertaining novel. I didn’t pick it up expecting it to be a literary masterpiece, but that’s OK. What was less forgiveable was that the pacing of the plot was poor. Overly long unexciting descriptions of fight scenes and a long time before we even got to that real action made for an unenjoyable read.

For all that though, it obviously did have something, as I’ve come back. In this case I think it was probably that novels fun steampunk setting. So here I am again, reading one of George Mann’s novels. So is this one any better? Sadly, no, not really.

Looking about the web, I have seen that this novel hasn’t always been well-received. Some have complained that it’s a pastiche of comic-book super heroes (notably Batman) and 1920s pulp fiction. Others have then suggested that the reader was missing the point, and that it is actually a clever homage to pulp-literature. That may well be true, but I don’t feel that it’s an excuse for poor writing. It’s entirely possible to write good quality literature which draws on its less illustrious forbears. Eco’s The Name of the Rose, (lest we forget, a detective story) draws on – well, many things – but the central character William of Baskerville is obviously named for Conan Doyle’s Holmes novel. And not to denigrate Conan-Doyle; he wrote well, but it was obviously popular fiction. Similarly, in the SF genre, many well-regarded authors, I think, draw on earlier types of hard-boiled writing (Gibson’s Neuromancer does this, I also believe that Peter Watts and Richard Morgan are familiar with early 20th Century crime fiction). This is getting away from me now, but my point is that I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with being aware of gritty crime novels, but the other writers I’ve mentioned above manage to pay homage, yes, but they also transcend it to produce something which is far better crafted.

My main complaint about this novel, therefore,  is that the standard of the writing was uninteresting. I can see the argument that it is not an homage. It is a pastiche and particularly poor one at that.

The fact that I pretty quickly started noticing some phrases and words being repeated tends to suggest to me that the writing is deficient. I’m not advocating that writers sit with a thesaurus and find as many synonyms as possible to unintelligently apply to their prose; but, really, how many times does the hero need to “draw a bead” on his foe, or how often does one need to know that he’s lighting a cigarette? I don’t know if the chain-smoking was an attempt to provide some kind of atmosphere to the novel. I sincerely hope not: that being the case it would be a particularly clichéd literary device.

The story itself, as far as it goes, follows the vigilante Ghost, (whose identity isn’t hard to guess, though that isn’t my main complaint about the book – that would be and is fine) and an honest, hard-working cop as they both try to bring down a mysterious new crime boss (“The Roman”) and his henchmen in the alternate 1920s New York the novel is set in. There are some other characters, rich playboy Gabriel Cross and his lover, Celeste and there are switches of perspective throughout the novel to give a different insight to the events depicted in the novel. The problem was, long before the official reveal of the Ghost, I’d really stopped caring.

Once I’d lost interest in the plot, characters, love-interest (there was one!) I just found myself noticing phrases, sentences and paragraphs that irritated me in some way. For example, when Gabriel Cross was watching Celeste sing “he watched her as she swayed on the spot, moving slowly with the rise and fall of the music. He’d known her sway in different ways; longed for her to sway that way again.” First of all, there’s a hell of a lot of swaying going on there. Second… “sway” in what way, exactly? I’m genuinely puzzled here. I have no point of reference for her previous, clearly erotically charged, swaying. Furthermore “swaying” just evokes the image of a super-lager toting drunkard standing in a puddle of his own piss and attempting to remain upright. Not a hot jazz singer. This did colour my perception of Celeste from this point on (of course, it’s also entirely possible that this is one of those things that says far more about me than it does the standard of writing in this novel).

There were other tics in the novel that annoyed. A few pages after the sway, it becomes necessary for Gabriel to hi-jack a car. That’s right: a car. However, the dialogue goes leading to their daring escape is a little…odd:

“Panting for breath, he called after Celeste. “We need a vehicle. A car. We need to get away from here.”

I just don’t believe that anyone in their situation, needing to make their getaway in a large city, would say that they need “a vehicle.” The steampunked New York in this novel does have cars, they’re just coal powered, is all. “A vehicle” implies to me that they’d perhaps have a choice. But, realistically (and to maintain consistency in this poorly sketched world), the best way (and most likely – they’re pretty unlikely to find a helicopter or airship carelessly parked for them to nab) for two people to make a daring escape would be using a car. You’d say “we need a car.”

The world created in the novel is disappointing too. I think that it’s supposed to be the same one seen in The Affinity Bridge, just set a quarter of a century in that novels future. So it has references to things discussed in that and a world where coal power remained the dominant way to fuel transport and so on. There’s also references to war in Europe and a cold war between the US and the British empire. Sadly, none of this is well developed; had the novel retained all the problems I’ve spoken about above, yet had an interesting setting, it may have been a little more enjoyable.

There were some attempts at providing some alternate history steam-powered and mechanical tech (as mentioned earlier, including steam-powered cars, which, oddly seem to “purr”) and Golems made of moss with steel skeletons. But they were just rubbish; cut to pieces as soon as the Ghost brought his fléchette gun to bear. Incidentally, for what is quite a short novel, there does seem to have been an heroic attempt at the record for the largest number of uses of the word “fléchette” in a single book.

There may also have been some insights into the nature of justice and the problems associated with being a vigilante and the consequences of tolerating vigilantism, once again, if there were, I had stopped caring.

Mercifully, in spite of suffering from the same poor pacing that I think The Affinity Bridge did, it’s an oddly quick read. But I can’t really recommend it to anyone, I don’t even think that the world-building in this is as good as the earlier novel. What’s even more distressing is that I can’t say I had particularly high hopes for this and yet I was still disappointed.

Nice cover, though.

Available from Amazon

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