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Tuesday, 18 December 2012 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Devil in the Smoke
Written by Justin Richards
BBC Books
UK release: 18 December 2012
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

Certain quarters of fandom have been clamouring for a Madame Vastra and Jenny spin-off for a while, and this ebook pretty much fulfills the brief – albeit as a “media tie-in” (in old money) rather than a fully-fledged series all of its own. Following the release of The Angel’s Kiss (which itself linked into The Angels Take Manhattan), I wonder whether every ‘event’ episode – or even just every episode, full-stop – will now arrive complete with its own commercially-available ebook. Personally, though I’m more than happy to buy DVD releases containing the TV series plus additional material, it feels a little odd to pay (seemingly on a per-episode basis) for prequel novellas to what’s still a public service TV series. But muttering about Doctor Who’s ongoing commercialization is a futile act – akin to trying to catch smoke in your hands – especially on the verge of an anniversary year and what will no doubt be a vast new plume of merchandise. Instead, fans and reviewers may as well just let it all swirl around them; like the weather, there’s seemingly nothing that can be done about Who’s corpulent growth as a mega-brand. And here’s something else for completists to enjoy (though Dan Starkey’s audiobook reading may well prove to be the more entertaining version, given the skill and verve with which he tackles character voicing).

Scrooge-like grumblings aside, there are some lovely moments in this tale, such as an observation of snow settling on the cold-blooded Vastra, as well as a mysterious death which sets everything in motion and features rather more “viscous carmine” blood than I’d expect to see in televised Doctor Who (particularly at 5:15pm on Christmas Day). There’s also some clever use of settings. Justin Richards plays with the reader’s expectation of a showdown set amid generic, grimy industrialism – all smoke, soot and merchants of menace – instead opting for a glassy, atmospheric location that greatly boosts his finale. However, the sense of place and time on show throughout is largely sketched in chocolate-box mode, relying on too many stock characters and shorthand sentiments. There are workhouses, and thugs, and baddies with names like Able Hecklington. Given that Justin Richards has to set out his stall pretty sharpish, and then wrap everything up just as quickly, it feels as if there’s little room for character development here, or indeed for very much which transcends the imitation of pastiche. Mocktoriana is drawn from how we remember collections of assorted cliché: the popular image of Dickens adaptations; jumbled TV Christmas Specials from over the years; big-budget advertising and its jacketing of history into seasonal prettiness. Furthermore, Vastra and Jenny are not really developed in any major way, and intimations of their relationship remain largely off-screen, or off the page. Devil in the Smoke, with its workhouse boys providing a point of identification, is self-consciously suitable for readers of most ages.

It may sound as though I’m being overly negative about this release – bah humbug! – but it has one feature that leaps off the screen and brings vitality to a sometimes insubstantial runaround. For me, the true saving grace here is none other than Strax. Justin Richards writes comedy just as fluently as he does action set-pieces, and his Strax one-liners are consistently laugh-out-loud superb. As a result, Strax pretty much gets all the best dialogue and effortlessly steals the show, for example with his Paternoster Row battle cry, not to mention his emphasis on “regrouping”. Richards clearly relishes the opportunity to subvert Sontaran militarism, but Strax’s forward planning is also valued, and he’s shown to be far more than just a comedic figure, but also one who is an important and respected part of the team.

The Snowmen has already provoked multiple prequels, whether for Children in Need, online, or in this guise. Like snowflakes, perhaps no two prequels are identical – some feature the Doctor, some (like this one) don’t really, some focus on Madame Vastra as ‘The Great Detective’, and others (like this one) amount to a colourful, undemanding romp compressed into less than a hundred pages. Can there ever be too much of a good prequel thing? In its favour, Devil in the Smoke ties into the imminent Christmas extravaganza in more ways than one. Not only does it draw on characters who have already become fan favourites, it also deploys its snowy backdrop for ambience, mood, and for the substance of plotting. Richards intelligently offers a different take on snowscapes (and a snowman) to the one we’re about to receive, and his closing line deliciously resonates with all the trailers and promotion for The Snowmen, setting the pulses racing of those of us “impatient for Christmas”.

I hope this ebook trend doesn’t expand to take in every episode next year, but instead remains an occasional and special treat, like all the trimmings that accompany Christmas dinner. With Devil in the Smoke, Justin Richards has served up something combining traditional, seasonal Who flavours with glorious notes of (potato-headed) piquancy.