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Lockwood & Co. 2: The Whispering Skull

by Jonathan Stroud (Corgi, 2014)

Ghosts mean business in Jonathan Stroud’s alternate reality in the Lockwood & Co. series. Referred to as the Problem in a typically understated British way, for the past half century, these other-worldly creatures rise daily under the cover of darkness to terrify the living. While hauntings are a problem around the world, apparently England is the worst affected. The ghostly beings take the form of spectres, apparitions, wraits, shades, poltergeists, phantasms and more, running the whole gamut from harmless, passive Type One ghosts to aggressive, ill-meaning Type Twos.

This, of course, has necessitated many social changes, including a revamped police force. Scotland Yarn is home to the Department of Psychic Research and Control (DEPRAC), and a specially equipped night watch with ghost-fighting abilities keeps the streets safe after darkness falls. Finally, psychic investigation agencies with agents trained to find and neutralize ghostly occurences are at every street corner. In a bizarre twist of fate, only children can see and hear these supernatural visitations, as a result of which they have had to take on roles as protectors of society, either as members of the nightwatch or as psychic agents. Lockwood & Co. is one of dozens of psychic investigation agencies in London, the shabbiest and smallest, we are told. And indeed, unlike their other more prosperous contemporaries, Lockwood & Co. doesn’t have any adult supervisors—just a trio of three fifteen-year-olds, somewhat bumbling but undoubtedly talented.

Since the happenings narrated in The Screaming Staircase, when Anthony Lockwood, George Cubbins and our narrator Lucy Carlyle sorted out the haunting of Combe Carey Hall, they’ve been rather more in demand. Thus, when a job gone wrong, a spot of bruised ego and a reckless challenge pits them against their arch-enemies—Quill Kipps of the Fittes Agency, Britain’s oldest and most famous agency, and his team—they must come out on top or risk public humiliation.

The case that sees them go head to head takes them to Kensal Green Cemetery, where the ghost of a dangerous and eccentric Victorian doctor is accidentally released and a deadly artefact known as the bone mirror goes missing from his coffin. Lives and limbs are at stake as Lockwood, George and Lucy follow a trail that takes them from an illegal blackmarket in ghostly artefacts to the scummy contents of the Thames. Aiding—or perhaps hindering would be more accurate—in their mission is the eponymous Whispering Skull, the skull in the jar that we met in the first book. Through its conversations with Lucy, the skull seems to be of surprising help in their case. The question, of course, is, can it be trusted or is it just messing with her head?

This second in the Lockwood & Co. series is just as thrilling, creepy and funny as it predecessor. Stroud is a brilliant writer and an equally brilliant world-builder. You will wear out your fingers turning the pages and your nerves will be shot thanks to the suspense. The characters that seemed somewhat unfinished in the previous novel see their corners hammered out in this novel. The cast of characters and the web of relationships between them is complex, nuanced.

Even though Lucy gets a lot of action in this book, the only negative that I found was some sexist comments. This alternate reality seems as much of a boys’ club as our current patriarchal set-up, that much being evident by the fact of the skull in the jar being offended at being thought “a girl”. This, of course, is a choice made by the author, but is nonetheless a chance lost. Even so, Lucy is a gritty customer and one of the more interesting narrators in contemporary fantasy.

Like countless other readers, no doubt, I will be waiting with bated breath for the next book in the series, especially given the ending to this one. Enough said!

RATING: 8/10

Other books in the series:

Lockwood & Co. 1: The Screaming Staircase