Jonathan L. Howard takes us Soaring
As much as we might love whodunit murder mysteries set in isolated locations, I think we can all agree it is on the way to becoming an old trope in need of some new life, fresh twists from new generations of authors… and I say this as a huge fan of Agatha Christie’s masterpieces. Thankfully, it seems authors are a bit more willing to take risks these days and attempt to put their own divergent stamp in any given genre, something which I believe Jonathan L. Howard has certainly managed with his Johannes Cabal series.
While in the first book we got acquainted with our beloved necromancer and his unusual lifestyle, in the second novel, titled Johannes Cabal the Detective, we’re going on a proper adventure filled with murder mystery and eldritch conspiracies. The story begins with Johannes being captured following the unsuccessful theft of a rare book. Thankfully, his quick thinking allows him to come up with a plan to impersonate a government official and escape aboard a luxurious aeroship. So far, the plan turns out easy and simple to follow.
Unfortunately for Johannes, once on-board things take a turn for the bizarre. First, a passenger vanishes without a trace. Second, a would-be assassin makes an attempt on Johannes’ life. Finally, a demon of the past shows his despicable face again. Trapped at an altitude of over five thousand feet in the skies, Johannes has no choice but to crack open this mystery before he himself disappears without a trace. This is a whodunit mystery in the true style of a Johannes Cabal adventure, attempting to mix the best of both worlds and bring something unique to the realm of literature.
Understanding Expectations in Johannes Cabal the Detective
There are undoubtedly many elements which contribute to writing a successful murder mystery, but in my opinion one stands above all: the author’s ability to understand the reader’s expectations and subvert them in a believable way. This is precisely why we get pleasure from unravelling a good mystery on our own: we understand the unspoken challenge between author and reader, how the former presents the latter with a challenge and dares them to solve it in time. On the other hand, if a mystery is easily predictable, we won’t derive much enjoyment from it whether or not we solve it.
In my humble opinion, Jonathan L. Howard is perhaps one of the better active authors with a talent for this specific element. From one chapter to the next I often found myself one step behind the author as he seemed to always know how to one-up my expectations from the events to come. The mastery in all of this is rests in the fact he accomplishes it so naturally. After all, simply subverting expectations is child’s play; to make it properly fit into the story is the real challenge.
It never felt as if the author pulled anything out of thin air for the mere sake of proving my forecasts wrong, but rather set everything up in small and subtle ways which later paid off. As a result, I never for even a second found myself bored, always having something to look forward to or think about. Perhaps more attentive readers than I will have an easier time seeing the twists coming, but I can safely guarantee even long-standing veterans of the genre will have to put in some work for it.
Journeying Further into Cabal’s World
While the apparently murdered passenger and Johannes’ assassination attempt are the driving force for a major part of the book, Howard also saw fit to present us with some more detailed looks at our protagonist and what made him into the man he is today. There are several flashback scenes which I actually enjoyed more than I usually do in these types of fast-paced novels, actually providing some interesting tidbits here and there as to the man Johannes once used to be. Slowly but surely, a more complete and nuanced picture of the necromancer is starting to form before us, but with a lot of room still left for further development.
While these moments do at times feel as if they slow down the progression of the story, they aren’t too numerous nor long to have a lasting effect in this regard. For the most part, we witness Johannes in the present, his usual brash and sharp-witted self as he jogs from one lethal inconvenience to the next with a healthy dose of black humour, undoubtedly a big part of what keeps him going. While I wouldn’t exactly call this book laugh-out-loud, I would venture to say it is thoroughly amusing from start to finish, the kind of book you would read with a constant smile on your face.
I only have a bit of a gripe with the rest of the cast, but this is mostly because they have a strong competitor to live up to in the main character. While I found his brother did a good job of this in the first book, he was sadly absent from this one and his “replacement”, Leonie Barrow, sadly wasn’t enough to fill his shoes. If anything, the people surrounding Johannes feel a bit more one-note in his presence, but ultimately I find it was a very forgivable sin considering the main course of the story still remains the murder mystery and the development of the protagonist.
The Final Verdict
Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan L. Howard is a fantastic sequel to the first book in the series, taking us on a rather different adventure but in the same darkly delightful universe. Full of twists, defied expectations and a plot which keeps on giving, I highly recommend this book to those who enjoyed the first one, as well as those of you who simply enjoy isolated mysteries in a more general sense.
Jonathan L. Howard is a British game designer and writer whose body of work includes writing the Broken Sword game series, The Russalka Chronicles series, and most prominently, the Johannes Cabal series with novels such as Johannes Cabal the Necromancer and Johannes Cabal the Detective. He has also penned a number of short fiction works, including “Exeunt Demon King”, “The Death of Me” and “A Long Spoon”.