25 April 2014

BOOK: The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage

In The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage, the Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones land in a world created from fiction by a madman who intends to consume all the universe. Sound familiar? Then you may have read my recent review of Run!. Although this concept certainly feels familiar whilst reading (it's what inspired me to revisit Run!) it is taken in a different direction to be fair. Derek Landy parks the TARDIS in an idyllic countryside of rolling hills, '50s children and old ladies. Martha quickly works out that they're in the first book of the Troubleseekers series - The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage.

At first, I thought this must be because you couldn't put them into an Enid Blyton adventure, only for it to be discussed on the following page. The Troubleseekers, it's revealed, were a slightly worse, arrogant bunch of brats with unrealistic storylines and massive plotholes, but nevertheless Martha loved them when she was eight. I really enjoyed the joy of the Tenth Doctor when he's wandering around the fictional world, meeting all the thinly-sketched locals and investigating the unoriginal mysteries. Derek Landy certainly nails that aspect of the character, and Martha is very well portrayed given her relatively brief onscreen stint. I really loved the character in this story, which is more than can be said of some of her televised adventures. 

The TARDIS team soon encounter a band of smugglers, and outwit them very easily to obtain their boat. There's more comments about the rubbish characterisations banded about here, and although it might sound laboured, I personally really enjoyed them. They follow the creek to the edge of the fictional reality where they're attacked by a swarm of skeletons - the UnMen. The frenetic pacing of this early stage of the book is really fun, and captures the Davies-era sense of spirit and adventure in the way that some extended media haven't. Returning to a cabin where they met a strangely-realistic caretaker called Mr Cotterill at the top of the story. It turns out that he is in fact a being called a Ch'otterai inhabiting a character from the Troubleseekers story, and draws energy from creation. They have very little imagination, and so sketch worlds from the minds of others. As Martha was the first one out of the TARDIS and Haunted Cottage is her oldest literary memory, this is what was summoned up. 

There follows quite an oddly-paced segment where the UnMen (taking on the physical forms of various characters) chase the Doctor and Martha through a number of settings from her fictional memory. These include Rapunzel and Dracula among others, and the action really slows down for sections before jolting back up to the opening pace for others. It's quite well-plotted, with the desperation to reach the TARDIS leading to all sorts of trouble, but the ending does feel a little rushed. The Ch'otterai is enveloped by the TARDIS' imagination, never to be heard of again. It's an imaginative solution (geddit) but it does feel a shame that after the really interesting opening the tale reduces to what is essentially a chase through many corridors. 

The story has clearly been considered though, and the villain is inventive. The mystery is built up rather well too, giving just enough clues for the reader to piece it all together before the Tenth Doctor reveals all to Mr Cotterill. I loved this section of the story, and I only wish that perhaps the Doctor and Martha could have landed in a Famous Five-style story that really was happening, rather than it being a work of fiction. However, framing it in this way does allow for a bit of fun to be had. The Doctor's derision of the fiction is fun to read, and exactly the sort of thing you can imagine David Tennant's Doctor blurting out onscreen. The only facet of the Doctor's characterisation that doesn't feel so authentic is his smugness and self-confidence when confronting the Ch'otterai. Although these were aspects displayed onscreen, they're perhaps a little over-egged here. Martha is given one of her best characterisations here, being defensive, likeable and inquisitive. The children are fittingly grating, and if no-one else, Landy nails them.

One character who I haven't mentioned is Fatty. Fatty is said to be a rather obese little boy who follows the Troubleseekers, hoping to join their gang. They of course, in their slim, healthy stereotypes, couldn't possibly allow this food-lover to ruin their image. In a nice twist of events, Fatty turns out to be an UnMan, and is actually the most dangerous character around. The parody of the Blyton books extends to a tomboy and a picnic, both of which are recreated well, and this obviously isn't just a slagging-off but a love letter to them. In this way, this eBook did remind this reader a little of Fanfare for the Common Men, where the Beatles are replaced by the Common Men, actually beings from another world who draw power from exposure. The comparison may sound tenuous, but having experienced both, there do seem to be (completely co-incidental, I don't doubt) similarities.

Overall, this is a neat little tale which slots quite nicely into the gap between Blink and Utopia. Martha's experienced but still a little naive. It was fun to see her encountering all her childhood memories, and broke the fourth wall in a couple of clever ways. Whilst the scope is a little limited for this to be converted into a television story, I think there would be more mileage in both mediums by making the children more personable and involving the Doctor in a 'real-life' mystery, with lots of jolly fun shenanigans for him to become embroiled with. Although, perhaps the more childlike personality of Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor would be more suited to this. Anyway, Derek Landy's style of writing flows nicely, and only jutters occasionally. He has a good handle on his main characters and it's nice to see Martha getting a bit more attention. Although she's not my favourite companion, I find her much more bearable than Donna, who I feared may be included. The Ch'otterai are a great invention, but a second tale from them could feel a little like peddling the same material once more. Having said that, Landy's welcome back. I'd love to see what he could do with another Doctor.

The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage fills the brief. It works for children, by having quite a tame villain (there's never much of a real threat, despite the inclusion of the slightly creepy UnMen), it provides a nostalgic kick (if you can be nostalgic after six years) and entertains for around an hour. However, it does feel a little unsatisfying thanks to its mish-mash of plot elements and the slight 'seen it before'ness of the fiction-as-reality plotline. These previous encounters (The Mind Robber most notable of course) are mentioned in passing, but Landy does manage to carve his own mark onto this storytelling device.

In a Nutshell: Enjoyable and disposable, this is good but not great.

You can buy The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage as an eBook here, or as part of the 11 Doctors, 11 Stories anthology here.

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