Anyone familiar with the song “Angel of Music” could tell you it was from the play Phantom of the Opera. Yes, Kim Newman’s new book does feature the Phantom, but not in a sequel, prequel or any other way you might have imagined seeing the masked character, famous for lurking beneath the stage at Parisian opera house. In fact, anyone who’s told that Newman has taken the well known antagonist from the play and cast him as benefactor of a mysterious detective agency in which he sends female operatives out to uncover truths and unmask villains in late 19th century Paris, might be a little incredulous. They might also realize the premise is slightly familiar. That’s right, Angels of Music is a genre and medium defying mash-up of Phantom of the Opera and Charlie’s Angels. Is it Good?
Angels of Music (Titan)
Kim Newman has been reimagining literary and historical figures for most of his career as journalist and novelist. Before Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Newman had already started to combine historical and literary figures in an alternate history with his Anno Dracula and Diogenes Club series. The likes of Moriarty, Aleister Crowley, and Dracula himself all inhabited the same victorian world. Still, the premise of the 80’s TV show Charlie’s Angels, where an unidentified, silhouetted “Charlie” and his right hand man Bosley, sent three female agents out to battle terrorists and murderers, hardly seemed a likely next step for the novelist. Although I was skeptical, I’ll admit he made it work.
“Charlie” in this book is played by the Phantom himself. Rarely seen, he still inhabits the underground labyrinth beneath Paris and his always reserved “box number 5” at the Opera house. His “Bosley” is a man identified only as “The Parisian”. If you need the “Opera Ghost Agency” to do a job the police can’t or won’t, The Parisian is the man you contact. The Phantom delivers orders and tells his Angels the details of their assignments through a two-way mirror that obscures his image. His “Angels” all have specialized skills and lead double lives as actresses, opera singers and journalists and the roster changes throughout the book with the passing of time.
The book is divided into five chapters, with the first starting out the most like a Charlie’s Angels episode. We’re introduced to Christine Daae, Opera singer and heroine of the “Phantom” play. The next is Triby O’Ferrall, from the novel Trilby, famous for introducing the world to the mesmerist “Svengali”. Rounding out the first three is Irene Adler, though only appearing in one of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, has been used as a love interest and foil in many interpretations of the great detective’s stories. It’s a good introduction as we see the three accept a case to protect the life of an important nobleman, only to confront a group of clockwork men and women behind it all. There is a good bit of introduction for each woman and they all seem like true individuals, though Irene comes across as the most interesting and fleshed out.
Each chapter reads like a short story, as the cast of Angels change in each one, along with a different plot and jump in time. Thankfully, as the book progresses, there is less time spent front-loading the background of each woman and their characters are shown more organically during the plot. In particular, I liked La Marmoset, a detective that never took off her various disguises and had forgotten her real name. Also, the frightening Clara Watson, who seemed to be an Angel simply because it would allow her to torture and kill people. Since Newman only had a limited time to write and develop each Angel, I thought he did a remarkable job giving each of the 18 Angels their own unique and entertaining personalities.
The best chapter for me, was the third, titled “Guignol”. For anyone unfamiliar with the infamous Parisian “Theatre du Grand Guignol”, it was a real theatre in which actors and actress performed horrific acts of mutilation, decapitation, amputation and any other “-ation” you could think of with the use of extensive special effects and buckets of fake blood, that usually ended up on the first few rows of the audience. Including the sadistic Clara Watson in this story was perfect casting, as well as her more forthright and straight-laced sister Angel, Kate Reed, as a foil to her macabre view point. The story also included “Dr. Orloff” from the Spanish horror film. It was the fastest moving chapter and the closest to what could be called a real “horror story”.
Newman’s research thoughout the book is impeccable and I found myself looking up many of the names, as even side characters seemed to have literary or historical significance. He handles it deftly, though there is so much of it, it could become a distraction for some readers. There’s a good bit of humor in the dialogue, as well, and it never seemed out of place, even under the dire circumstances.
I found I liked the book the more I read of it. I had enjoyed Mr. Newman’s other works and this experiment worked out better than I had anticipated when I began. The first chapter was slow for me, in its introductory phase, but the pace does pick up if you stick with it. The ending was a satisfying conclusion, when a death brings some of the former Angels from different time periods together in a story set during the great flood of 1910. It’s not a heavy, soul-searching book, nor do I think the author intended it to be. But as a fun caper, with touches of the supernatural and horror, full of interesting and enjoyable characters, you could do a lot worse.
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