Kim Newman is a cheeky bloke. His satiric writing humorously takes no prisoners. In his latest novel, Angels of Music, a fin de siècle crime fighting organization is helmed by Erik, the Phantom of the Opera. The Opera Ghost Agency operatives are specially selected trios of uniquely talented women who, like precursors of Charlie’s Angels, get summoned by the reclusive Phantom when needed. These so-called Angels of Music are chosen for their histories as well as their skills: “One did not become an Angel of Music unless one had a past…usually an immediate past fraught with scandal, peril and narrow escape.” The inaugural team consists of the Phantom’s beloved Christine, Svengali’s Trilby, and Irene Adler, who ultimately refuses to be defined by any man—be he a Bohemia royal or Baker Street sleuth. She is the first Angel to leave Erik’s employment, but returns briefly for personal reasons and comes back again many years later to assist on a case. Along with characters from fiction, Newman peppers the narrative with historical personages. The mash-ups are often hilarious and wildly entertaining, but there are instances in the 400-plus pages when the conceit becomes too much of a good thing, and it feels like a spreadsheet is necessary to keep some of the identities straight.
Since the action takes place from the late 19th Century to the early 20th, the assemblage of Angels changes with the times. Their chronicled investigations are given the literary designations of “Acts,” as in an opera production. The least satisfying of these is “Act Four: The Mark of Kane,” which involves Charles Foster Kane/Citizen Kane. The Angels activated are Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle, Rima from William Henry Hudson’s Green Mansions, and Colette’s Gigi. They are deployed to stop a world war which Kane is trying to instigate. This section of the book ups the already high absurdity factor, making it more over the top than the other “Acts.” It is great fun, however, for horror fans to see Emeric Belasco from Richard Matheson’s Hell House involved in the loopy plot.
Despite the abundance of absurdities throughout the novel, notice is paid to some of the relevant issues that reflect the socio-political climate of the era. The Dreyfus Affair, which exemplified the anti-Semitic sentiments of the period is discussed, as is the aforementioned prospect of a world war. What is emphasized most is the changing perceptions of women: the feminist movement is personified by The Angels. Although brought together courtesy of Erik’s machinations, the uncommon females become further empowered through working together. Unity only strengthens their individual/specific uniqueness, solidifying the sisterhood.
The Opera Ghost Agency is the Paris counterpart to London’s Diogenes Club. Erik chose to cherchez les femmes, in contrast to Mycroft Holmes and his co-founders of the Diogenes Club, who flaunt their fraternity’s male exclusivity. Way to go, Phantom, and Vive la France! Cheers too for Kim Newman for creating an outlandish entertainment that incorporates references from film, literature, and real life; sending the reader scurrying to the internet to find out who belongs in which category. The cornucopia of characters amusingly defies the conventional. Whimsical and witty, Angels of Music, published by Titan Books, pleasantly boggles the mind.