The Many Hands.

Books The best scene in the film version of The Addams Family is the surprise revelation that Thing, hitherto trapped in a box during the television series for reasons of practicality has found a job working at Federal Express, and we see him sprinting along spider-like, parcel in tow. This, along with the titular disembodied appendage from The Hand of Fear seem to be the image that Dale Smith is attempting to conjure for his antagonists in The Many Hands.

It’s potent and creepy enough to keep your interest on its own, but the book is also a clever experiment in atmosphere and a surprisingly ripping read.

It’s Edinburgh in 1759, and minutes after beginning a tour of the castle the Doctor and Martha find themselves hurtling through the city streets after a runaway stagecoach for reasons which only become apparent as the novel winds on. The dead are walking, aided by something from the Loch. After about ninety pages the pace slows and we drift into Hinchliffian gothic horror territory, as we’re assaulted by a range of gruesome body horrors, the origin, given that this is a Doctor Who story should be obvious but are nonetheless surprising in their form. If all of that sounds irritatingly vague it’s because this is the kind of book which works best the little you know about it. The blurb on the back cover might even give away too much.

What I can say is that Smith (who already has two Doctor Who novels and a few short stories under his belt) writes with a buoyant but meticulous style, the streets of this eighteenth century city convincingly portrayed and someone who knows Edinburgh quite well will be pleased with the geographical accuracy, a surprising bonus in these kinds of tales. There’s never a sense that the writer’s imagination is thinking itself around a television budget taking advantage of the location -- in places you can smell the squalor, the hopelessness of people trying to make ends meet and the primitive lifestyle of a population still on the edge of industrialisation.

Smith has clearly done his research but at no point does the narrative seem bogged down by detail; the writer remembers that his story is first and foremost a romp with thriller overtones, with description on a need to know basis, particularly when Martha’s fumbling about in the darkness. But the real joy is the ending, which again without spoiling things seems to be going in one direction, a well oiled over-familiar deus-ex-machina which has been seen in at least two other novels, before heading off in a totally different direction. Clever kids should giggle at the audacity. I know I did.

Smith keeps his main cast to a bare minimum. The Doctor spends much of the story gaining the confidence of a Captain McAllister, a Lethbridge-Stewart gone dark who eventually comes good. Martha falls in with The Munros, the Steptoe and Son of anatomical research whose experiments may be the cause of much of the bother. None of the three are complex souls but they’re far from one-dimensional and you’re certainly able to care for their fate. It’s often the case in Doctor Who novels that characters really lack for an actor to breath life into the dialogue but that’s certainly not the case here.

Pleasingly too, the author doesn’t make the mistake of trying to tell parts of the story from the Doctor’s point of view – even in his latest huggable incarnation he’s best left mysterious in his actions and so we largely meet him and his ‘wand’ through McAllister or Martha’s eyes. There are plenty of the big speeches and grand gestures that Tennant loves getting his vocal chords wrapped around, and since this is Scotland in his own accent (which might prove confusing should he record the audiobook version).

Smith captures Martha perfectly too, Freema’s portrayal springing from the page, her tenacity reminding you how, even though Donna’s brought a different chemistry to the TARDIS, that it’s a shame we’re not experiencing another full season of adventures with the student doctor as the plus one. But if this is to be one of the last of the printed adventures for this crew during the third season for now, it’s an excellent send off.

Doctor Who: The Many Hands by Dale Smith
ISBN: 978-1846074226
RRP: £6.99
Released: 10th April 2008

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