Strange Practice: London blue-light special

Book cover: Strange Practice - Vivian Shaw (woodcut style image in black and white and red of a woman standing over a coffin)Doctor Greta Helsing isn’t your regular Harley Street practitioner: she specialises in the lesser-known maladies of the supernatural. When a mysterious group of monks try to murder a local vampire, she gets drawn into solving London’s ills to keep her patients safe…

I have a healthy scepticism about authors who adopt classic works and begin writing prequels, sequels and assorted relations (much as I increasingly roll my eyes at Hollywood’s inability to come up with a new idea rather than a marketing plan for a franchise). So I approached Vivian Shaw’s urban fantasy with caution – would it be lightweight Gothic fanfic, or could it be the next Penny Dreadful?

Greta is summoned by her good friend Ruthven – informal protector of London, still twitchy about that Polidori fellow, and more acquisitive than bitey – when his acquaintance Varney is assaulted at home. London is in the grip of a serial killers’ spree, but this is the first time it has spilled over into the lives of its less human residents. Varney’s fuzzy memories and the odd fluids found in his wounds provide a starting point for an informal investigation and an excuse to rapidly introduce Greta and Ruthven’s allies.

Greta is delightful – none of PC Grant’s early sexist humour, for a start – being capable and cool under pressure, highly conscientious if given to extravagant promises. Ruthven is an irresistible charmer with a side-helping of ennui, who adopts strays and befriends humans to stop him getting depressed. He’s everybody’s Mom friend, if your Mom could turn a lamp post into a pretzel and needed the occasional pint of blood.

“The easiest thing is to think of me as a large well-dressed mosquito, only with more developed social graces”

Fastitocalon is a cinnamon roll, a jovial uncle given to self-deprecation and concealing just how outrageously powerful he is. Varney is ultimately good-hearted but entirely too obsessive about Greta from practically their first contact; the heaving bosom subplot was by far my least favourite aspect of the book. Cranswell is the convenient fish out of water; aware of Ruthven’s nature, but less familiar with the broader underworld.

Strange Practice has more in common with the PC Grant books than with DraculaThe VampyreVarney the Vampire and the other Gothic classics it slyly borrows characters from (although they provide opportunities for sly humour, those with no context aren’t missing anything but in jokes). It is fast-paced and frequently funny as the unlikely team get to work on identifying Varney’s assailants and trying to survive the escalating violence of the murderous monks. However, it feels cosier than Rivers of London – which is no bad thing; you can just relax and enjoy the ride.

And there’s plenty to enjoy. Greta’s pivotal position at the heart of all the supernatural communities means we get to glimpse many of them in passing, enjoying Shaw’s spin on their maladies and social challenges. The ghouls in particularly are glorious, which isn’t something I ever expected to say about a ghoul – it’s refreshing to see them cast here as good guys; and I loved that the ancient evil in the depths of the Underground (because of course it is) is using abandoned war-time technology to manipulate its followers. It’s the sort of mash-up that I love, with a cheerful air of supernatural multiculturalism.

I have some quibbles – I already mentioned Varney’s fascination with Greta, but the masculine skew of the cast also bothered me a little. In this respect, using classic characters isn’t helpful (let’s face it, Gothic literature – like Strange Practice – tends to surround beleaguered human heroines with immortal men), which takes me to my final thought: while I’ve got no problem with the use of classic characters in Strange Practice, I don’t ultimately think it adds much. As Shaw deliberately inverts expectations of them (ghouls as a close-knit family; Ruthven as a protector), so it does feel more like borrowing names for the sake of atmosphere than truly leaning on the source material. The story would have worked just as well with entirely original characters (or maybe there’s a whole load more significance I missed. It’s decades since I read The Vampyre and I’ve never read Varney – please feel free to point it out if this is the case!)

However, Strange Practice is light-hearted fun, driven by the warm relationships between its protagonists and its unflagging humour. It makes for a fast, easy read that I can happily recommend. I won’t rush to pick up the sequel, but will happily keep it in mind for the future.