With The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim, Shane Peacock – author of the Boy Sherlock Holmes series – introduces readers to a new trilogy, a 19th-century gothic thriller featuring the eponymous Brim. It’s a strong enough introduction, but not without problems.
The opening of the novel is somewhat shaky. In the first chapter, we’re introduced to Brim, being attacked in his sleep by “the hag”: “She digs her knees into his chest, her talon hands grip his throat and her vile breath assaults him.” When he struggles awake, we learn that these nocturnal attacks have plagued him all his life. Brim is on a train, with a group of friends and a professor, returning to college on the Moors. It’s the week of Brim’s graduation, but they’re not going for the ceremony – they are walking into a trap, and they know it.
Opening a novel in medias res is often a good tactic, and here it is powerful enough. But such openings are stronger when set apart from the main narrative, to avoid confusing the reader or setting up false expectations about the novel’s structure. Television has mastered this approach, with shows like The West Wing using an in medias res cold open, followed by the opening credits (which serve to isolate the scene). The first scene of the show proper is then tagged something like “48 hours earlier.” In fiction, the same effect is gained by use of a prologue.
But Peacock risks giving the reader whiplash by having this material appear as chapter one, especially since the following chapters bounce around chronology relentlessly. Chapter two – in which we are introduced to an infant Brim, whose mother died in childbirth and who is acutely sensitive to the stories his father reads to him – begins with “Sixteen years earlier.” When chapter three begins “A few years later,” and chapter four with “Five years later,” the disorientation is almost overwhelming, and readers are forced to tough it out, in hope that the narrative will eventually solidify.
Which it does. Following the death of his father, Brim is sent to the aforementioned gloomy school in Scotland. The story follows several years of the boy’s education, a life of terror and bullying. College on the Moors seems like a breeding ground for secrets and monsters, which may be close to the truth, as Brim discovers when he is drawn into the mysteries of the school (including a series of poorly explained deaths), and a secret society that believes the monsters in books might actually be real.
In the main, The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim is good fun, loaded with thrills and discoveries, old journals and secret connections, hidden rooms, and mysterious, cloaked figures. By including real-life personalities from the period, such as Bram Stoker and celebrated actor Henry Irving, Peacock captures the feel of the late 19th century, and doesn’t neglect the shadows and fog so essential for a book of this sort. Brim is a well-drawn character, and his complicated relationship with his best friend, Tiger Tilley, is a genuine pleasure.
Unfortunately, while there are thrills aplenty, there’s little in the way of genuine suspense or tension. When Peacock does turn the screws, he demonstrates a mastery of the skills necessary to raise the reader’s pulse; it’s a shame so many opportunities to do so are passed over.
As the first book in a trilogy, The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim has a lot of foundation to build, and it largely succeeds. Despite its problems, readers will be left eagerly wondering what comes next, and pondering deeper underlying questions.