Recently I took a well-deserved break from reading Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers to read Ian Edgington and D’Israeli’s Scarlet Traces, and was surprised to find some common theoretical ground between them. Not bad going considering that one is about the struggle for supremacy amongst the prevailing European powers during the 16th century and beyond, temporally and geographically, almost up to the present day, whilst the other deals with the aftermath of Wells’ War Of The Worlds and its effects upon old Britannia.
Just to be sporting, I’ll let you guess which book is which.
Edginton takes up the story ten years after the failed Martian invasion, after the heat-ray-wielding tripod war machines fell, their Martian pilots victims of lowly terrestrial bacteria. England has made a substantial comeback since those dark days; the country’s finest minds have investigated and domesticated the derelict Martian technology and used it to take the British Empire to greater heights than would ever have been dreamed of in Kennedy’s earthbound work. In this vision of the early 20th century the United Kingdom is a strange and unsettling place, filled with scuttling, crab-like cars and sleek, gargantuan passenger aircraft built in shapes reminiscent of the Union Jack. Homes are even heated by the heat-ray – a delightful touch.
There would appear to be some dark secrets at the heart of this very brave new world, however – not the least of which is the wellspring of so many dead women’s bodies just now uncovered during low tide on the banks of the Thames. Have some of old Victorian London’s murkier goings-on been simply swept under the bright bustle of all this shining new technology, or is this intimately connected with those same gleaming mechanisms? One man interested in finding out is distinguished former intelligence officer Major Robert Autumn, along with his trusty and firm assistant, Sergeant Archie Currie – who seems to share a tragic family connection with the recent goings-on.
Scarlet Traces is a particularly well-told and intelligent story, beginning with a real killer premise, and then building carefully – but with awful logic – to a nasty end. The plot creeps carefully forwards, occasionally ambushing even the wariest reader with a bolt from the blue. These shocks seem all the more realistic because they are so unpleasant, and because our heroes are similarly caught out – they’re human, not some Holmesian supermen. Thus, the reader knows to expect a climax, but Edginton and D’Israeli keep upping the ante such that you wonder how they can possibly deliver. I think they do, however; not perhaps in the way you might expect but, oh, they do.
D’Israeli’s art might not initially strike you as the perfect accompaniment for the story: I thought it a little too cartoony to properly support the dark atmosphere and the detail of this warped world – perhaps Brian Bolland, John Cassaday or Glenn Fabry might have been the perfect choice. Fortunately, however, I completely changed my mind about a third of the way through Scarlet Traces, because D’Israeli does a superb job here (he even reproduces of one of Piranesi’s Carceri d'Invenzione etchings at one point!). The freakish post-invasion world comes alive under his brush in all its glory and grandeur, squalor and misery.
The obvious reference point here is Moore and O’Neill’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and there are similarities in the respective grimy steampunk visions. Scarlet Traces is less of a pastiche than that though; one of the central pleasures of the League lay in trying to spot all the rich layers of reference. Edginton and D’Israeli play with some references here and there (as well as the aforementioned Piranesi reproduction, Tintin and Captain Haddock also make a Hitchcockian appearance), but they prefer to weave a new story rather less than stitching together old ones, so Scarlet Traces is thematically quite a different book.
I hear tell of a Scarlet Traces II being published this year so you’ll definitely want to catch up with part one before then because this is a worthy addendum to Wells’ original.