Thursday, 23 April 2009

Book review: "The minutes of the Lazarus club"

This book starts off with a man trawling the Thames for debris; this is somewhat reminiscent of the opening of Dicken's 'Our Mutual Friend'. He picks up a decayed woman's body; all of her internal organs have been removed. This passage is well-written and very descriptive; it also sets a suitably Gothic tone for the rest of the book.

It is written in first-person, and details the hero's trials and tribulations after he gets invited by Brunel to write the minutes of the mysterious Lazarus Club. The protagonist and narrator is a Doctor, Doctor George Phillips. He is a specialist in anatomy, and therefore a series of similarly-mutilated bodies are bought to him for dissection.

Early on there is a brilliantly-written description of the first aborted attempt to launch Brunel's behemoth, the Great Eastern. The most famous picture of Brunel depicts him standing beside a large chain drum on the Great Eastern, and the author has the protagonist there as the photographs was taken. At the last moment, the protagonist ducks out of the picture. Indeed, the great ship is so dominant that she almost becomes a character in the story.

The 'Lazarus Club' of the title is a grouping of the famous scientists and engineers of the day - Darwin, Bazalgette, Russell, Stephenson, and two of my heroes, the irascible Babbage and the brilliant Whitworth. This is a group of men who literally made the Victorian world, and the author does a superb job in introducing the reader to their lives.

Another of my heroes, the beautiful mathematician Ada Lovelace, makes a rather macabre appearance. The only other female character of note in the book is the Lady of the Lamp herself, Florence Nightingale. If you are after strong female characters, then this book is sadly not for you.

I am not sure that some of the history is accurate - it is said that Joseph Whitworth and Babbage first met in the club, but in reality they worked together much earlier on in their careers. However, such minor inaccuracies take nothing away from a book of such ambitious scope.

The biggest problem with the book is the way that the ambitious scope makes the plot slightly unwieldy - the book could easily have been two-thirds of the length by shortening the plot. I had assumed that the final denouement was going to occur on the Great Eastern during her trails, which would have given the book a natural span - from the launch of the ship to its first disaster. Yet the plot continued on after this, and not always successfully.

The author has an undoubted love of both medicine and of the period; this shows throughout this piece. The descriptions are full and believable,

I would give this book four out of five stars.

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