It would be tempting to say that Joe Spork lived a quiet, unremarkable life until he was pulled into an attempt to stop a mad South Asian dictator from unleashing a 1950s clockwork doomsday device by a retired octogenarian super-spy named Edie Banister. Tempting, but not quite accurate, since Joe is the son of the infamous Matthew “Tommy Gun” Spork, who kept fashionable crime and the honourable lifestyle of the gangster alive long after it should have faded into obscurity. Joe has turned his back on his father’s life of crime and taken up his grandfather’s trade—watchmaking—but it’s not enough to keep him from becoming involved in much larger, more bizarre affairs.
Angelmaker is a chimera of a novel. The core of the story is a spy thriller, with homages to the golden era of James Bond and daring international espionage on behalf of queen and country. It’s a race against time to prevent a megalomaniacal supervillain from destroying not just the world but life everywhere in the universe! Yet rather than playing it straight, Nick Harkaway injects that sort of dry, very British humour that isn’t afraid to verge upon—and venture into—the absurd. It’s why I loved The Gone-Away World, and it’s why I love Angelmaker. Harkaway writes with a voice that makes me laugh out loud, whether it’s at his descriptions, dialogue, or characterization.
Despite its careful callbacks to the 1920s gangster lifestyle and the 1950s Cold War spy genre, Angelmaker is very much a post-9/11 novel. The heightened response to domestic terrorism is a counterpoint to those more removed and romanticized elements. Various levels of civil service decide (and quite accurately, alas) that Joe Spork had something to do with the activation of this doomsday machine, and they aren’t afraid to subcontract someone to do a little enhanced interrogation. In this climate, Joe no longer has the right to remain silent—he has very few rights at all. It’s significant that Joe’s first encounter with an antagonist is not the dreaded Shem Shem Tsien but with Rodney Titwhistle and Arvin Cummerbund, who are not afraid to do whatever’s necessary to safeguard their country. This tension between Joe and certain representatives of government authority is what ultimately catapults the novel towards its climax and Joe’s transformation into a man of action.
See, the first part of Angelmaker is enjoyable, but in a slow and very reflective way. We meet Joe, learn about his connections to the London underworld, hear a good yarn about what it’s like to be initiated as an undertaker, and then we meet Edie. As rumblings of a doomsday scenario gather on the horizon, Joe sort of stumbles from scene to scene without too much of a plan in mind. Aside from his unwitting involvement in activating the doomsday device, he is more of a spectator in the consequences than a participant—that is, until the government decides to turn him into a wanted man.
Joe’s status as a fugitive forces him to confront a crisis of identity foreshadowed since the beginning of the book. He has spent the past decades of his adult life actively trying not to turn out like his father and avoiding, as much as possible, associations with the criminal element. His status as “the Crown Prince of the Night Market” nips at his heels like an unwanted insurance salesman, but Joe is determined to survive on the straight and narrow. Except it increasingly seems that, if Joe wants to get out of this alive—not to mention save the day and get the girl—he will have to step up and become not Joe Spork, the grandson of Daniel Spork, but Joe Spork, son of Matthew “Tommy Gun” Spork. This inevitable transformation is almost an apotheosis of its own, albeit not in quite as grand a way as Shem Shem Tsien would like for himself. From there, the novel switches gears and becomes a wild ride from “crazy” to “insane” as Joe and his allies concoct a crazy plan to save the world.
And the girl? Her name is Polly, or maybe Mary Angelica, a onetime childhood friend and sister to Joe’s lawyer, Mercer. (The firm Noblewhite & Cradle, with its suspiciously ultra-competent staff, is another highlight of this book. They can, in Mercer’s own words, “sue anything”.) Polly is awesome, because despite being a love interest in a book with a male protagonist, she’s her own woman. When Joe has the audacity to treat her like a sidekick, she sticks an oyster knife under his eye and retorts, “Can we be very clear … that I am not your booby sidekick or your Bond girl? That I am an independent supervillain in my own right?” Later, after Joe has been kidnapped by the aforementioned team of Titwhistle & Cummerbund, Polly pays the latter a visit and clarifies her feelings about Joe:
I do not know, at this point, whether Joshua Joseph Spork is the man of my life. He could be. I have given it considerable thought. The jury is still out. The issue between you and me is that you wish to deprive me of the opportunity to find out. Joe Spork is not yours to give or to withhold from me, Mr. Cummerbund. He is mine, until I decide otherwise. You have caused him grief, sullied his name, and you have hurt him. If anyone is going to make him weep, or lie about him, or even do bad things to him, it is me.
From this and other comments and actions Polly makes, you get the sense that she might be a little bit mad. (Then again, maybe everyone in this book is.) Psychology aside, this is one woman I want on my side.
Finally, I can’t continue praising this book without talking about Edie, the common denominator throughout the rest of this plot. She knew Joe’s grandfather and grandmother. She is, in a sense, the last surviving member of a cabal who created this doomsday machine, which did not start out its life as a doomsday machine but, like all good inventions of mad scientists, has the capacity for mayhem as well as miracles. The Edie of the 1950s is a cocky, over-confident spy whose hubris almost gets her and others killed. The Edie of 2012 is … a cocky, over-confident retired spy whose hubris almost gets her and others killed. At over eighty years old, Edie deals with assassins sent to kill her by calling them amateurs and shooting two of them with a gun concealed in her underwear drawer. (She chastises the third one in her best old woman voice and then sends him packing to his mum in Doncaster.) Like Joe, Edie is this perfect combination of heroic awesomeness and flawed humanity. So even though Angelmaker has characters and events who are larger than life, we can still identify with the protagonists, because for all their skill they are still kind of just muddling through the whole mess.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it is one of the most original and unique books I’ve read in a long time. Lots of authors can ride the tides of traditional fantasy, urban fantasy, or science fiction and create vivid, imaginative stories. Harkaway, however, goes beyond that to create a story that really is different from anything else on offer right now. To label this as steampunk simply because of its clockwork components would be grossly mistaken. To call this a spy thriller simply because of its subplots of espionage and intrigue would be a massive oversight. And while, thanks to Harkaway’s style, this book is definitely comedic and entertaining, it also has an edge and a sense of constant, present danger—not to mention very real and permanent sacrifices from some.
In short, Angelmaker hits a sweet spot for me. Every moment spent reading was a moment I could bask in Harkaway’s sprawling scenery and characterization. The story is just scene after scene of slow but constant development toward total mayhem, with a diversity of characters along for the read. Many books are entertaining and many are moving; Angelmaker is both of these things, and it is also a supremely satisfying read.