This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.
If this month’s Puffin short story sounds as though it has a hackneyed title then there’s actually a good reason for that. Because the tenth Doctor and Martha rapidly discover – spoiler warnings again here! – that what they really need to investigate is the mystery of The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage
: they are apparently trapped in a predictable, Enid Blyton-esque children’s book once read by Martha. In this sub-'Famous Five' world, populated by a jolly group of kids known as the Troubleseekers, the Doctor and Martha have to work out exactly what sort of trouble they’re in.
Derek Landy has created an intriguing scenario, adroitly referring to the Land of Fiction as well as the Doctor’s previous encounters with a certain fictional vampire. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable sections of the tale occurs when the Doctor and Martha tumble crazily through different narratives, suddenly finding themselves in a Stephen King novel, for instance. But the leading difficulty with this kind of tale – whose villain gains his power from readers’ willing suspension of disbelief – is ironically that you can’t suspend your disbelief. You know all along that the unreal worlds will somehow be switched off, that 'reality' will be restored, and consequently this feels more like hearing a shadowy dream recounted than reading a realist narrative.
For me, Landy’s version of the tenth Doctor is slightly off: this doesn’t quite sound like the David Tennant incarnation on occasions, unlike last month’s contribution from Charlie Higson which perfectly captured the ninth Doctor’s speech patterns. This representation of the Doctor says he’ll judge Martha Jones later on for the fact that she’s read the Twilight books, and though the comment may be a joke, it seems as if this rendering of the tenth Doctor has uncharacteristically become a literary snob rather than an open-minded figure. Other moments of dialogue also feel odd, such as the Doctor cursing by saying “seven hells” and remarking on his own "good hair".
At a vital point in his story, Landy offers us a glimpse of the Doctor’s imagination and all the books he’s ever read. If ever there was a candidate for an epic moment of the awesomely sublime then this ought to be it, but instead what we’re given here feels barely less clichéd than the Troubleseekers with their oath and their cheery picnics. This is very much a missed opportunity, all generic fantasy forestland and coloured sky, before changing into a constantly blurring flipbook of shifting scenes. To be fair, this does effectively convey the Doctor’s imagination in the process of overloading his antagonist, but it still feels rather cursory and predictable. The story’s denouement also disappointed me slightly. Its equation of the TARDIS with “the imagination” is well taken, but when a resolution pretty much boils down to shutting the TARDIS door then you can’t help but feel slightly cheated (whether or not this is readable as a tricksily “meta” version of Doctor Who
, where going into the TARDIS necessarily means the end of the story).
But perhaps I’m being too negative, just as the Doctor takes a cavalier attitude to the Troubleseekers and sparkly Twilight stuff. On the plus side, Landy gives Martha a strong role in this story; as well as hinting at her romantic interest in the Doctor – resonating with series three – it’s often Martha who works out what’s going on, and who takes risks that propel the story forward (and away from the threat of nothingness). And The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage
also features some appropriate monsters or henchmen, neatly called the un-Men, who serve as a physical threat where needed. But having the Doctor be so starkly dismissive of “rubbish” old-fashioned children’s fiction makes him sound more like a contemporary writer than a citizen of the universe who walks (and presumably reads) in eternity. At one point, Landy’s plot relies on the observation that his omnipotent ‘Author’ can’t resist a temptation to insert himself into the story: likewise, the Doctor’s attitudes sometimes feel as if they veer too close to authorial commentary.
This story begins with a clever idea that is smartly developed in a series of ways (although the collision with fairytales might have played better as an eleventh Doctor scenario). It also offers a second pay-off to its title, in the form of an unexpected “haunting”, but nonetheless remains weakened by an overly convenient ending and a depiction of the tenth Doctor that feels slightly too churlish and self-appreciative. In the end, perhaps there just isn’t enough awe-inspiring mystery to this particular haunted cottage.