Dan Leno & the Limehouse Golem [book review]

Another book that came to my bedside rather randomly! It is in fact a 1994 book by Peter Ackroyd, not to be confused with Roger Ackroyd, a mystery book by Agatha Christie I remember reading in my teenage years! And takes place in Victorian London, around a woman Elisabeth Cree, who is a music hall celebrity and stands accused of murdering her husband. With the background of a series of gratuitous and inexplicable murders soon attributed to a supernatural creature. Called a golem for its ability to appear and vanish with no witness… There is a great idea in the plot but its implementation is quite tedious, with a plodding style that makes the conclusion a very long wait. This is not helped by Ackroyd borrowing so much from the life of a few well-known historical characters like Karl Marx, George Gissing, Dan Leno and Charles Babbage himself! Simply because they truly existed does not make these characters particularly exciting within the plot. Especially Babbage and his difference engine. (Which was exploited in a much better steampunk novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling!) The worst part is when Ackroyd reflects in the book on the engine being a “forerunner of the modern computer”, ruining the whole perspective. As I do not want to get into spoilers about the almost unexpected twists in the conclusion, let me conclude with quotes attributed to Babbage (or followers) about social statistics, for which he had devised the analytical engine.

“To be exactly informed about the lot of humankind (…) is to create the conditions in which it can be ameliorated. We must know before we can understand, and statistic evidence is the surest form of evidence currently in our possession.” (p.113)

“…the errors which arise from unsound reasoning neglecting true data are far more numerous and more durable than those which result from the absence of facts.” (p.119)

 

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