The Domino Men is both like and unlike Jonathan Barnes’s previous novel The Somnambulist. In both books a supernatural evil is threatening London, helped or hindered by various factions and secret societies who want it to succeed or fail. In both books a beleaguered protagonist is variously threatened and encouraged, given enigmatic clues and warned away from his investigations.
Unlike The Somnambulist, though, which is set at the beginning of the twentieth century, The Domino Men takes place in the present day. Gone are the atmospheric London fogs, the hansom cabs, the gas-lamps. Instead we have the London Eye ferris wheel and Chinese restaurants, double-glazing and kids on skateboards.
Perhaps as a consequence, the quasi-magic realist feeling of the first book is gone as well. There is no one here like the Somnambulist, who never speaks and drinks only milk, no carnival troupers or skulking albinos. The protagonist this time is not a stage magician but a filing clerk. On the other hand, with the modern tone comes a more modern humor, and the new book is funnier. ("Mum ... set about working through a page of sudoku with the single-minded pertinacity of Alan Turing squaring up to a fresh cipher from Berlin," p.19.)
Henry Lamb is the filing clerk, and nothing very much ever happens to him. Then his grandfather goes into a coma, and Henry visits him in the hospital. He has just stepped outside when a window-cleaner falls to the ground in front of him. "Henry," the window-cleaner gasps out, lying broken at his feet. "The answer is yes" (p. 20).
We never find out how this man knows Henry’s name, or why he makes contact in such a bizarre way. "Yes" is the answer Henry is supposed to give another character, and we never find out why she chooses to communicate with Henry like this. It almost doesn’t matter, because from this point we’re rushed from one crisis to the next. Henry is conscripted by the Directorate to fight in a war against the House of Windsor, who turn out to be even more evil than the fantasies of the most committed anti-monarchist. Just as Henry discovers that his grandfather was not an old bore in a pub but an agent of the Directorate, the old man’s house burns down, and all clues to fighting the royal family are lost.
Then Henry meets two maniacal killers named Hawker and Boon, grown men who dress in schoolboy uniforms and use outdated schoolboy slang. At this point the story starts to read like a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Vlad the Impaler, with additional dialog by H. P. Lovecraft, as the two men head out into the streets of London and proceed to kill everyone in sight. Office workers are stapled, shredded, pushed into fans. Necks are snapped, blood is spattered, heads are used as footballs. The humor turns rancid: "‘What ho!’ said Boon, as he forced the hand of a Timothy Clapshaw (who I vaguely remember and who I think had something to do with accounts) into a paper shredder" (p. 220). Not coincidentally, perhaps, there is also a lot of vomiting, or, since this is a British book, spewing.
The nameless evil behind the royal family turns out to be pretty disgusting as well; so do the effects of a drug called ampersand, one that is used by everyone from office workers to the Prince of Wales. And it was around here that The Domino Men lost me. The story itself isn’t bad, it’s funny at times and it moves along at a rapid pace, but I had a hard time slogging through all the pus and blood and mucus. If this sort of thing doesn’t bother you, and if you like absurdist conspiracy theories, then by all means pick up a copy. In my case, though, a couple of times I found myself wanting to spew.
Lisa Goldstein's latest novel is The Divided Crown, written under the name Isabel Glass. Her novel The Red Magician won the American Book Award for Best Paperback. She has worked as a proofreader, library aide, bookseller, and reviewer, and she lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their cute dog Spark.