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Sep 04, 2007

The Banquo Legacy

Banquolegacy It’s 1898, at the cusp of a new century.  Compassion is dying and after dumping the Doctor and Fitz into a frosty landscape she materialises inside the body of a local, Susan Seymour.  The nearest civilization is Banqou Manor, a pile in the area of Three Sisters in South-West England, where a rather nasty experiment related to thought transference goes horribly wrong (or right from a certain point of view) and murder results.  Tapping into the hats and tales horror genre, The Banquo Legacy will also please Sherlock Holmes fans, Mark Gatiss’s The Unquiet Dead, the Hinchcliffe seasons and Christopher Priest’s The Prestige (book and film).

The story is related in the written accounts of a Detective Ian Stratford, one of Scotland Yard’s finest in the area following up an inquiry related to the apparent suicide of one scientist, and the colleague of his John Hopkinson.  Relating a story in the first person from two perspectives is always a tricky proposition, but authors Andy Lane and soon to be series editor Justin Richards have produced a masterpiece -- witty, atmospheric and genuinely creepy.  Both of the voices are distinctive and clear; Stratford is very much one for reporting the facts and nothing but even when they don’t put him in a good light -- Hopkinson’s writing is far more emotional and you’re often under the impression that he’s omitting something vital, presumably so that the reader's finger of suspicion isn’t ever deflected from him. 

It would be an interesting exercise to read the novel again seeing if a coherent story is related through just one of these pairs of eyes.  On more than one occasion the same scene is played out through each of the reports and Roshoman-style with each participant remember differing details.  The also means that our appreciation of the other participants from the servants Simpson and Beryl, the Wallaces, the Harrieses and the Inspector’s sidekick Baker (who’s hardly mentioned by Hopkinson but held in high regard by Stratford).  For once in one of these novels, either despite, or because of the multiple perspectives, each of these characters is sympathetically and complexly drawn, the kind of figures that Robert Holmes would be proud of.

The only weak moments are when the writers have no choice but dump a range of exposition into the dialogue, talk of Artron energy and whatnot which is ostensibly then being related to us by either Stratford or Hopkinson despite obviously being well beyond their comprehension.  I don’t know about you, but when I hear high science being described and I’m then asked to repeat what I’d heard at best the result is garbled but here everything is echoed verbatim.  It’s a necessary result of the storytelling device, but just now and then it pulls the reader out of the action and it might not have been such a bad idea to have the correspondent remark ‘I have no idea what any of this means but I report it as best as I can remember’.

Even if it’s a generally excellent piece of writing, is it a good Doctor Who novel?  Lane and Richards apparently originally began the work as a piece of non-Who then offered it to the range.  If that’s the case, they’ve worked hard to make it seem of the ongoing plot arc and the way its written works in the arc’s favour.  In many ways, this is the literary equivalent of a new series double-banking episode with the regulars dropping from the story when they’re off doing something out of view of the storyteller. 

When they are in view, they’re perhaps as vivid as they’ve been for a while, with Paul McGann being manifested perfectly in the Doctor.  It’s a surprise to see that this was produced pre-Big Finish since the authors (in and out of the fiction) capture his speech patterns perfectly.  The business of Fitz trying the affect a German accent is hilarious, as is the detail of the ring around the inside of his eye which gives away to the Inspector that Kreiner hasn’t ever worn a monocle before and therefore can’t be all he seems. 

Because we’re reading about our heroes adventures from one remove, we’re possibly paying even closer attention to the minutae and a lot of trust is put in the reader to notice inferences and clues to what various happenings mean in the relation to the travels of The Doctor, Fitz and Compassion.  In terms of the latter, that means being able to notice when she’s in control of Susan’s body or being subsumed by her host.

Beyond that there’s a rather brilliant moment when one of the characters says something which is very important to us and the Doctor and puts a whole new complexion on what has gone before but is passed over by Stratford, who has other things on his mind, like why he keeps having weird dreams and seeing the house from odd angles and finding himself slipping into hallucinations of the past.  As it transpires everything is connected, though.  Just as it should be.

I imagine when The Banquo Legacy was published in the year 2000, there was a collective wince of horror from the fans who were expecting a continuity fest.  Just when you would expect the arc that began in Interference or earlier to be winding through to its denouement, series editor Stephen Cole drops in a late Victorian murder mystery with supernatural overtones told in the first person of two non-regulars.  In hindsight though, it's an example of why I love the franchise, its repetitions, hesitations and deviations and that it’s at its best when it isn’t feeding the fan gene.

Next:  The Ancestor Cell.  See what I mean?

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