This book pushes Peter Ackroyd above Charles Dickens to become my second most read author of the last 25 years. (Christopher Fowler is a few books ahead of these). Ackroyd’s work spans both fiction and non-fiction. His best as far as I am concerned is his mammoth, superbly researched “London: A Biography” (2000) (My Book Of The Year in 2002) with other titles “Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem” (1994), “The House Of Doctor Dee” (1993) and non-fiction works such as “The Life Of Thomas More” (1998) and “Albion” (2004) all featuring strongly in my end of year Top 10’s in the year I read them. I do tend to favour him as a non-fiction writer as some of his novels haven’t really blown me away. In fact the one I liked the least was the work which made his name “Hawksmoor” which I was disappointed in when I read it in 1998.
“The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein” is a reimagining of the classic horror story. The titular narrator is Swiss who comes to Oxford to study and there meets Percy Bysshe Shelley whom he follows to London. It’s a time of scientific study and intellectual debate and Frankenstein becomes obsessed by the possibility of reanimating a corpse. This mixture of a fictional character amongst real lives feels a little odd on this occasion. At one point Frankenstein is staying with Lord Byron, and both Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley (his actual creator) at the time when they decide to tell each other ghost stories from which the seeds of Mary Shelley’s novel were sown.
Basically what we have here is a fairly straightforward horror-tinged thriller which will seem familiar to readers because of its strong place in our popular culture. I’ve never actually got round to reading “Frankenstein” so I’m not sure how close to the source material this goes but all of us will know about the experimentation and that if a corpse is actually brought back to life it is not going to be happy and it is not going to end well.
I think it’s the concept of this novel rather than its actual story-telling which stopped me being totally captivated by it. Frankenstein’s account is well written and it’s a pacy narrative. The sense of dread is conveyed well and London, as in a number of Ackroyd’s works, is a fairly vibrant character in itself. It has whetted my appetite to wanting to find out more about Mr & Mrs Shelley and when I get round to the original novel (this is something I have always planned to do) this may be worth re-reading to compare the two. On this reading it just misses out on being something special.
The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein was published by Chatto & Windus in 2008. I read the 2009 Vintage paperback edition.