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Necropolis
by Basil Copper
Arkham House, 352pp
Published: June 1980

I remember enjoying Basil Copper's works of weird fantasy when I was young, from 'The Great White Space' to 'The House of the Wolf' via short story collections like 'Not After Nightfall' or 'Here Be Daemons,' but I knew he was more diverse than that. He wrote non‑fiction, continued August Derleth's 'Solar Pons' series and wrote the long‑running 'Mike Faraday' series of detective novels which eventually ran to 58 volumes. What I hadn't realised is that his tastes also ran to classic cinema and he founded the Tunbridge Wells Vintage Film Society. We'd have had much to talk about but he sadly passed away in 2013.

The novel of his that I remember best was 'Necropolis,’ which had been originally published by Arkham House in 1980 though I read it in a cheap paperback edition from Sphere in 1981. Surely to tie it into the cosmic horror themes of his earlier Sphere books, it was made to look like a fantastic horror novel when it was really a gothic mystery. I was drawn back to it while doing research for a book on Victorian weirdness as it capably draws from real life to provide an appropriately morbid atmosphere for its period mystery.

A grief‑stricken young lady, Angela Meredith, believes that her father Tredegar, a prominent London banker, was murdered and so hires private detective Clyde Beatty to investigate. Honing in on the sinister Dr. Horace Couchman, an old friend of the deceased who completed his death certificate, Beatty, regarded by many as the greatest detective in London after Sherlock Holmes himself, soon solves that mystery but realises that it only leads into a larger one.

Dr Couchman runs a rather suspicious nursing home in Surrey, from which residents die a little too quickly, and that shifts Beatty to Brookwood Cemetery, which is so gorgeous a location for such a novel that it's surprising to find that it was real. The fact that it was created by the wonderfully named London Necropolis Company to house the teeming dead of crowded London is a happy bonus. That the corpses travelled on what were known as Ghost Trains is merely the icing on the cake.

Spanning 500 acres, at the time Brookwood was opened in 1854, it was the largest cemetery in the world. The dead were transported from a dedicated station, London Necropolis, which sat next to Waterloo, to two dedicated stations within the cemetery: one for Anglicans and one for non‑conformists. As might be expected for Victorian England, corpses fell into classes, the first class dead allowing families their choice of gravesite and a memorial but third class dead were buried in unmarked graves.

A gift to any novelist wishing to work in the Victorian gothic genre, Brookwood is put to prominent and effective use in this novel which, of course, is named for it. Copper doesn't neglect the fog‑bound streets of London or the cosy pubs of Surrey, but the cemetery is clearly the primary location for dastardly events and Beatty finds himself travelling down frequently to this 'vast Victorian city of the dead', as the back cover blurb phrases it, both in disguise and as himself.

Following the model of his one superior, Sherlock Holmes, Beatty has an assistant, though the formidable Dotterell reminds as much of James Bond's Q as he does of Dr. Watson, designing as he has many clever little gadgets to assist his employer's work. These two men operate mostly within the law but Beatty certainly takes shortcuts whenever he deems it appropriate; shortcuts that are not available to either the local police force or Scotland Yard, both of whom eventually join in proceedings, the latter in the form of Inspector Lestrade, who is given a major role.

The framework of the story is very much a mystery, though we and the police are kept in the dark as to exactly what crime Beatty believes he's going to solve at Brookwood. The tone is delicious gothic, the accoutrements of the Victorian mourning process put to good use and dabs of horror brought in when it'll do the most good. It isn't a horror novel though, however Sphere labelled it. Its gothic aspect warrants the inclusion of as much romance as horror; though this angle is more interesting for its etiquette than its surprise, and there's plenty of adventure to spice up the mystery too.

I enjoyed 'Necropolis' very much as a precocious child with a strong interest in the macabre. I enjoyed it as an adult too, if a little less because the direction Beatty was taking everybody was a lot more obvious to someone who's lived a little. Perhaps it would play best to a reader in between those ages, a twenty‑ or thirty‑something with a taste for the fantastic and a basic grounding in the Victorian era. I would especially recommend it to members of the goth community, who in Cherie Priest's words: have discovered the colour brown and become steampunks. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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