review: Leon Garfield’s “Night of the Comet”


Like Wodehouse, Garfield stylizes human behaviors to create absurd and absurdly complicated plots, however in the course of entertaining us Garfield also reveals the pettiness and triumphosity of the human condition.
This book is a kung-fu Victorian kick fest, packed with action yet lacking action.

There are no monsters or wizards or robots, of course, but there isn’t much of anything else, either. No battles, mysteries, chases, murders, escapes or any such things. Just various romances, but it’s hardly a romantic book.


But watching Garfield work is like watching wire-fu. It’s not supposed to look real, it’s supposed to rock and it does. And part of the pleasure is marveling at Garfield’s mastery of all facets of it – from connecting wildly divergent plot points to making clever word flourishes.

(I liked this book a lot better than the related “Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris.” Which had a distrubing scene regarding the menacing of a young woman, which I thought was out of place in a light comedy.)

I scraped enough of the pricetag off the cover that you can see the tagline: Would you trade your sister for a telescope? This was a pretty good attempt by an editor to make some sort of connection to something kids could understand. It’s hardly the moral question at the center of the book, however. It’s actually more like “Would you trade your telescope for my sister?”

Could a book like this be published today? Man, I don’t know. Marzipan and cellos and misunderstandings and window repair and more marzipan? Would kids pass up “Moltron Rising: The Quest for Earthend” for marzipan? I think the comet would have to hit the earth. (It doesn’t even come close.)

(This movie, also called Night of the Comet, appears to have a little more action.)

On a personal note: I can’t quite remember what the connection is between Leon Garfield and my first book, Horton Halfpott. I can’t remember if I had started reading Garfield before or after the first draft. I know I had read him before I tackled the big revision nearly a year later. And there’s no doubt that I wrote ” The _____’s Apprentice” as a pastiche of Garfield, Alexander, Fleischman, et al. That book was actually written specifically for Robbie Mayes, an editor at FSG. He never did tell me what he thought about it.

Regarding the cover. At first I thought the cover was terrible, but eventually I realized, it wasn’t the painting it was the 1980s salmon and blue background that was throwing me off. My apologies to the artist, Gordon Crabb! (He appears to have gone on to a career painting or photographing naughty ladies, so he probably doesn’t give a ding-dang y’all what I think about this old book, anyhow.)

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