I’m going to begin my review by saying I absolutely loved this book, with two exceptions. One of these things probably had nothing to do with the author whatsoever, but the other one most assuredly did. I’ll get to those issues in a minute.
But first things first.
Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase is, apparently, going to be the first in a series of novels all based around – unsurprisingly – Lockwood & Co., a ghost-hunting agency in London led by the charismatic, raffish Athony Lockwood. Along with his colleague George Cubbins and their new recruit, the talented Lucy Carlyle, they set out to track down, trap and neutralise ghosts in the London area. This is no small problem: ghost infestations are endemic. For reasons which are (deliberately) left unexplained, about fifty years before the book begins an influx of Visitors, as the ghosts are called, starts to plague the people of England, and there are several ghost-hunting agencies in London, of which Lockwood & Co. is the smallest. The ghosts, which fall into categories and types (Type 1 being the least harmful, and Type 3 the rarest and most harmful to the living), take many shapes and forms and their reasons for coming back vary from individual to individual. Early in the book we see the intrepid Lucy and Lockwood tackling a ghost infestation in a suburban home which turns out to be far more complex and frightening than they’d bargained for, and the ghost – which they’d thought was that of a man who’d died accidentally in the house – turns out to be far older, and more vengeful, than they were prepared for.
In the course of trapping the ghost, Lucy and Lockwood manage to burn the house down. They barely make it out alive themselves. Naturally enough, this means that the business is now in trouble – the debt they face for destroying their client’s property will cripple Lockwood & Co. unless something drastic is done.
Step in Mr Fairfax, the owner of the most haunted house in England, who tells them he will pay them what they need to save their business merely by showing up… But what’s the catch?
So, among the things I loved about this book were:
The writing style, which was rich and densely populated with beautiful words, and every sentence was perfectly structured. I really enjoyed the dialogue, which was whip-smart and funny, and overall the reading experience was great.
The characters – in the main. I have some reservations, though, which I’ll go into later. I liked Lucy Carlyle, who was brave and resourceful and interesting, and who deals with the guilt from a previous case in which many lives were lost and for which she blames herself. I liked Lockwood, too, though after a while his louche self-confidence began to grate. However, I think there’s more to him than that; he has lost his parents, and we don’t know why. At certain points in the novel he seems to ‘space out’, as though his mind has frozen or he’s dealing with something deeper. I get the sense that the rakishness is covering up for something dark, and that’s intriguing. Of George, more later.
The world-building, which is essentially a version of our own world, but ever so slightly (and ever so interestingly) different. I had a few reservations in relation to the maturity levels of the characters (all of whom are supposed to be young teenagers, running their own lives and businesses and so on), but it was easy to put that aside.
The story. I loved it. I’ve read some reviews which have poked holes in the plot, and that’s fair enough. You could probably do that to every book that’s ever been published. Overall, though, I thought the story was engaging and enjoyable, tied up well, and importantly…
…The ghosts were proper scary. Now, to be fair, I could take fright at a badly-made sandwich, so you can take that with a pinch of salt. But I found them genuinely creepy, particularly the ones they encounter in Fairfax’s house.
However, let’s get to the bits I didn’t like so much.
Firstly, the cover of my edition has a very handsome illustration on it (see above) which depicts a slender young man carrying a rapier – the primary weapon against the ghosts, as they can’t tolerate iron – with a castle in the background. Presumably this is supposed to be Lockwood himself, as he is far too handsome and svelte to be anyone else. But the entire book – the entire book – is narrated in Lucy’s voice. Personally, this led to a bit of confusion as I read, because I was ten or twenty pages in before I realised the narrator was a female character. This irritated me. The cover gave me the impression that the narrator was male – that I was, in effect, reading the story through Lockwood’s eyes – but that wasn’t the case. Other editions of the book do feature a rapier-carrying female, too, but not the one I have. Lucy is brilliant and a very fitting carrier for the story, so the fact that the cover omits her drove me mad.
Of course, the author probably had nothing to do with this. Cover art is not normally something the author has any control or influence over.
But I also took major issue with the character of George Cubbins – or, rather, how he is described, discussed, and talked to and about by the other characters, particularly Lockwood. George is bookish, cautious, clever and likes to be prepared for all the jobs that the agency takes on. He likes to research. He enjoys understanding what the ghosts are, why they do what they do, why they haunt where they haunt, and so on. Essentially, he’s a nerdy academic.
But he’s also described – almost every single time he appears – as being fat.
Fat, and repulsive, and frighteningly unattractive, and cumbersome, and clumsy, and inefficient, and lumbering, and slow. The worst possible thing Lucy can imagine is seeing any part of his anatomy, even if only by accident. This is despite the fact that he is the most intelligent and – in a lot of ways – the most hard-working member of the group. He is constantly compared to the rake-thin, elegant and fashionable Lockwood (mainly because we are reading through Lucy’s eyes), and the comparison never favours George.
The author had every control over this.
George is the butt of jokes, both verbal and visual, and he is made fun of, taunted, and used as a punchbag by the other characters. This upset me, not only because I hate to see characters picked on as easy targets because of things like weight but also because it’s lazy; it’s a shortcut for puerile humour that takes no effort on the writer’s part. I hoped, right to the end of the book, that George’s role would be rehabilitated, but it wasn’t to be. Every bunch of intrepid children have had a fat member to act as the ‘comic’ foil, something which ignores the individual worth of the fat character themselves; George could have been, and should have been, so much more. Perhaps in future books he will come into his own.
So, take that as you will. I loved the book overall, and it’s one I’d recommend. It’s a great, rollicking story told with panache, and it has fantastic characters and a cracking plot. I’m looking forward to The Whispering Skull, the next in the series, and I’ll try to catch up with the other books in Jonathan Stroud’s back catalogue. I just hope he’s less sizeist in his other work…