George Mann talks to Stephen Jewell about celebrating the fifth anniversary of his popular steampunk Victorian detective duo’s first appearance in The Affinity Bridge with The Casebook Of Newbury And Hobbes.
You mention in The Casebook’s introduction that Newbury & Hobbes has been the most successful series that you have written. Why do you think it has struck such a chord with readers?
I think there are a few things at play here, but for me it's largely about fun. When I first sat down to write The Affinity Bridge I was doing it very much for me – it was an exercise in having as much fun as I possibly could, and pulling together elements of all the different things I love. I'd been trying to write a big space opera for years and was getting nowhere, and Newbury & Hobbes was all about having fun. I like to think that enjoyment is part of what's struck a chord with readers. It's certainly something reviewers have said – that they can see how much fun I was having writing it. I also think the timing of that first book was an important part of its success. Completely coincidentally, it was published just as that big resurgence of interest in Victoriana and steampunk struck, and I think it somehow tapped into that zeitgeist a bit too.
What is it about Newbury & Hobbes – and indeed their trustee colleague Inspector Charles Bainbridge – that makes them work as a team?
I think with Newbury and Veronica it's the fact they work so well together. In many ways they're the perfect couple, and they just haven't figured it all out yet. They complement each other in a way that makes them better together than they are apart. Newbury is deeply flawed, but he also has moments of brilliance, and Veronica is the strong one in the relationship, keeping him on the straight and narrow. They'd do anything for each other, and again, despite all of the angst, they have fun together, too.
Bainbridge cares deeply for Newbury as an old friend, and relies on him, too. Bainbridge is a hugely capable and talented police inspector, although we don't see that so much, because the books are focused on the times when he calls in Newbury for help, to deal with arcane nonsense or things outside of his experience. He worries about Newbury, and I think in Veronica he sees a co-conspirator, someone who also has Newbury's best interests at heart. He wants to see Newbury settle down and marry Veronica, and he thinks Veronica will help to eradicate his bad ways. So really it's about how they compliment each other like any group of friends and colleagues, watching each other’s backs and having fun while gallivanting around on their adventures.
You also write Sherlock Holmes novels for Titan. Seeing that Newbury & Hobbes is influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle and other such historic mystery authors, is the series a less constricted way of exploring the same archetypal characters and scenarios but with an added, almost Who -ish sci-fi element?
Oh, absolutely. That's definitely a part of it. As I think I mention in the introduction to the Casebook , from its very conception Newbury & Hobbes has been about bringing together everything I love. I'm massively influenced by Doyle's Holmes stories, but also Doctor Who, The Avengers , Hammer Horror, Sexton Blake, Jason King, Charles Dickens… The list goes on. Like any writer I'm a sum of my experiences and influences, and one of the things I love about writing Newbury & Hobbes is the fact I don't feel any sense of restraint at all, particularly now that I'm working on the sixth book in the series. If I have a good idea, or I want to explore some of the weirdness in their world, I can do that.
What's your opinion of more recent Holmes interpretations such as Sherlock and Elementary?
I love the fact that Holmes as a character is still so vital, still such a part of British culture, and I think it's wonderful that he keeps on being reinvented and reinterpreted for the modern audience. What I really like about the BBC's Sherlock is how it clearly keeps its roots in the original stories. I haven't seen much of Elementary yet, but again, in principle I'm all for taking archetypal characters like Holmes and keeping them alive through reinvention.
Is the Casebook a good introduction to the world of Newbury & Hobbes for new readers?
I'd like to think the Casebook would give new readers a flavour of what Newbury & Hobbes is all about, as well as filling in some of the gaps for existing readers. To me, Newbury & Hobbes are flexible enough for me as a writer to be able to explore different genres and styles, and short stories feel like a good place to do that without distracting from the core series of novels. Hopefully readers will feel they add something extra, too.
What's the appeal of writing short stories in this universe?
Before The Affinity Bridge the Newbury & Hobbes series was actually going to be a series of short stories, and I think the format suits them really well. It allows me to explore elements of the world or the characters that I might not be able to do in the novels. The stories give a bit of an insight into some of the stuff that happens between the novels, but also extends the saga in both directions, taking things back to a time before Newbury met Veronica and was still working with his previous assistant, Templeton Black, as well as looking forward to the changing of the guard and the time when these characters are handing on the baton to the next generation. They're a lot of fun to write, and I can't see a time when I won't want to be producing more!
There are quite a few Christmas stories in the collection. What is it about the festive season that fascinates you so much?
For me, the traditional British Christmas is absolutely a concoction of the Victorians, and Charles Dickens in particular. You can't get away from it. Plum puddings, rum punch, carols, presents under the tree… What's not to love? I think Christmas and the Victorian period are synonymous, really, and I love the season myself. It's just become a tradition that I always write a Newbury & Hobbes Xmas story in November. Last year we did a small, 100-copy run of a Newbury & Hobbes annual , which had a handful of new Christmas stories in it, alongside some fun stuff like word searches and games. I'd like to maintain that tradition.
What can you tell us about the future adventures of Newbury & Hobbes?
Well, things are left on a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of [last novel] The Executioner's Heart , so the next novel, The Revenant Express, picks up only minutes after the final scene of that book. We follow two main threads – Veronica and Bainbridge investigating a series of unusual deaths a few months earlier, and Newbury and Veronica's sister, Amelia, making a fateful journey to St. Petersburg on a massive transcontinental train. Of course, the two threads of the story dovetail in explosive fashion, and Newbury as Amelia find themselves facing assassins, kidnappings and a plague Revenant outbreak onboard. After that, there's sixth novel, tentatively called The Albion Initiative , more short stories and novels, an original audio drama and a comic series. Phew!
The Casebook Of Newbury And Hobbes Is out now from Titan Books.