Sun 20 May 2012
BARBARA HAMBLY – Those Who Hunt the Night. Ballantine/Del Rey, hardcover, December 1988; reprint paperback, 1990.
Most assuredly a tour de force, if there ever was one. If you don’t know the story, hang on to your Bunsen burner. Under considerable duress, James Asher, one-time foreign agent for the British government is hired by Don Simon Ysidro to find out who is killing the vampires of London.
The year is 1907, and the fact is that Ysidro himself became a vampire in 1555. Held over Asher’s head is the life of his wife Lydia, who is herself a scientist of some ability, and who knows something of the pathology of blood.
Several of Ysidro’s companions are dead, with stakes in their hearts and their coffins opened to the light of day. What Ysidro cannot understand is how a human could be doing these deeds any vampire’s knowing, and thus he turns to what would otherwise be unthinkable: he is asking the assistance of a human. (Worse than that, of course, is actually allowing a human to know of the vampires’ existence.)
Nominally a detective story, there are a few flaws along that line, mostly those of conjectures that somehow become facts within minutes of their being stated, and small jumps of logic that on occasion stumped me badly. (And sometimes they are wrong, leading to long wild goose hunts that circle back upon themselves, and only then are they crucial to the story.)
What this may sound like is a horror story, but it really is not, although with vampires involved, how could there not be any chills? What it is, when it comes down to it, is a science fiction novel. There is a reason the story takes place when it does, and that’s because in 1907 there was just enough known about blood and bacteria and related matters to provide a solid “scientific” basis for the existence of vampires, and not yet enough to know that they are not possible.
And always overshadowing Asher’s investigation is the question of how it’s going to work out when it’s over. Ysidro is a creature who has killed thousands of humans in his “lifetime,” and yet he and Asher become strange allies in their hunt for the killer of the vampires, and each in their own way begin to stand taller in the opinion of the other.
While there may not be a definitive answer to this not-so-subtle problem, Hambly does offer the reader a resolution to it. She also supplies a solution to the mystery itself, and of the two (resolution and solution), it is the solution to the mystery that is stronger.
All in all, this is a fascinating book, one I didn’t think I was going to read — it’s not my usual bill of fare — but as it turned out, I’m glad I did.
February 1991 (slightly revised).
[UPDATE] 05-20-12. Unknown to me until now, this was the first of a series of vampire novels that Barbara Hambly wrote about Jim Asher. I’ll list those below.
Hambly is one of the few authors I can think of who has written as many mysteries as she has in the SF/Fantasy field. Most notable among the former are her eleven novels (through 2011) featuring “free man of color” Benjamin January, a Creole physician and music teacher whose first adventure takes place in New Orleans in 1833.
The James Asher series —
1. Those Who Hunt the Night (1988)
2. Traveling with the Dead (1995)
3. Blood Maidens (2010)
4. The Magistrates of Hell (forthcoming: July 2012)