If there’s one thing I enjoy, it’s horror stories. If there’s one more thing I like, it’s murder mysteries. If there’s one last thing I like, it’s dirigibles. You can imagine my excitement when I first discovered that the second book in the Johannes Cabal series was titled Johannes Cabal the Detective, the increase in my excitement when it was revealed that said detecting took place on a dirigible, and my final and greatest flux in excitement when the book turned into a Cabal-themed Murder on the Orient Express with the titular necromancer as the main character.
To the uninitiated, what are you doing reading a review of the second book in a series without having read the first book or review? That’s pretty silly and just asking for things to be spoiled. Things like the fact that Cabal survives the first book, is not damned to hell at the end, and wins back his soul. That should have been pretty obvious for any who realized that this was a series, but I digress. To said uninitiated (shame), Johannes cabal is a necromancer of some little infamy who sold his soul to the devil for necromantic knowledge. Unhappy with what that was doing to some of his test results (he is nothing if not rigidly scientific), he made a deal with the devil to get his soul back. This involved running a demonic carnival to steal peoples’ souls. As this second book continues with him as the main character, you can safely make the assumption (or read what I wrote 5 sentences ago) he survives and is successful. There, you’re caught up. You can read in my review of the first book here that I greatly enjoyed the humor, setting, and episodic nature of the first book but was let down by the lack of horror elements. How does Detective stack up?
While the storytelling style of the first book fit the plot rather well, with each episode telling the story of one of the more memorable stops on the demonic carnival’s itinerary, Johannes Cabal the Detective is much more a single story and plot arc, which once again worked well for the story it was trying to tell. Linear, well thought out, and interesting, even without the flavor from the characters this book would have made a fun and efficient (if not exceptional) murder mystery. The clues were all there, the murders themselves were confusing at first but elucidated as well as one expects in such stories as the tale played out, and the cast of characters was both well chosen and well written. I wish some of them had more to do than just die, but not everyone can see the detective’s grand reveal at the end.
On that topic, a stuffy germanic necromancer with a short temper and generally negative outlook on life solving the murders of people he neither cares for nor particularly likes is a story I didn’t know I needed until now. Cabal slots into a distinctly Sherlockian role with great aplomb, putting to use his cutting wit and scientific nature with snark and sarcasm that lands far more often than not. I won’t spoil their identity as it is a particularly fun reveal, but a character from the first book features as a main supporting character here, playing a particularly sardonic Watson to Cabal’s Holmes. The first book had its funny moments, but Detective definitely upped the game, and the hopes of a cutting remark or incredibly backhanded compliment had me turning pages more than any of the cliffhangers did. The fleshing out of this supporting character further was welcome and added to the comedic element, and I was glad for their inclusion throughout the duration of the novel.
Speaking of cliffhangers, there was a great deal more action in this novel than in the first of the Cabal series. Dangling from high places, flying crazy aerial vehicles, outrunning explosions, winning fencing duels, raising dictators as voracious zombies and inciting mass revolts? Oh yeah, that’s all there and more. When you consider that Cabal is, as a character, about as stiff and anti-fun as can be, he manages to get up to some of the most ridiculous hijinks you can imagine, and the juxtaposition of his character in these various disasters is both compelling and hilarious in equal measure.
For those of you hoping for a spookier outing in this sophomore novel, unfortunately you will be disappointed. While there is still an air of the occult about everything (main character being a necromancer and all), there are even fewer actual horror elements in this novel than in the first. Having adjusted my expectations somewhat after book one, this didn’t bother me as much, but it does still need to be stated. Howard definitely chose to go for more of a murder mystery/political intrigue tale here, and while it works (very, very well), my deep and eternal thirst for scares is far from sated by this outing.
If action, intrigue, gunfights, daring swordsmen and reckless pilots, dirigibles, and political unrest sound like fun to you, Johannes Cabal the Detective is a must read. It continues the story of the titular character in fine form, fleshing out who Johannes is as a person while taking the reader on an absolutely wild ride through the skies of a small and overambitious shithole of a country (Cabal’s words, not mine). I highly recommend this book (and its predecessor, don’t be lazy) to all readers, as I think it has something for everyone to enjoy.
Rating: Johannes Cabal the Detective – 8.5/10