Last year, I read the first Lockwood & Co book, and was pretty much swept away in a world of fog-bound streets, creeping miasmas and murderous ghosts. Crackling with intelligence, and shivering with cold dread, it was a book I would’ve been obsessed with at ten years old (and still was at twenty-six). I even posted to the Waterstones Blog when the paperback edition was our July Children’s Book of the Month, and worked my little cottons off recommending it to as many people as would listen to me. So, how does the difficult book two stand up to the rip-roaring debut? Pretty superbly, I’d say…
The Whispering Skull takes place several months after the events of The Screaming Staircase, and the success of the Combe Carey Hall incident has helped raise the profile of the smallest team paranormal investigators in the country – Lockwood & Co. They’re hardly drowning in work, but the increase in acclaim has helped put them firmly on the map. However, when the high profile case of the Wimbledon Wraiths is snatched from their grasp in an embarrassing failure, by Quill Kipps’ expertly trained and expensively armed team from the Fittes Agency (the largest Paranormal Investigation Agency in the country), Anthony Lockwood, Lucy Carlyle and George Cubbins are finally thoroughly sick of being shown up by less skilled agents with expensive toys to help them muscle in on the good jobs. When an unknown body is unearthed from an unmarked grave and a horrifically powerful and terrible artefact is stolen, Inspector Barnes sets both Lockwood & Co, and Kipps’ team on the case, to try and increase the odds of finding the object before it falls into nefarious hands – and the rivalry between the two teams finally has a solid way to be settled: The best team is the team that returns the artefact first, and the losing team has to place an advert in the paper admitting their superiority. The mystery is thicker than a Type-Two Spectre’s miasma, though, and the team are sucked into the dark, unholy works of the nefarious Dr. Bickerstaff, a scientist who experimented with the Otherside and tormented the dead even before The Problem swept the nation and ghosts began to plague the living. Bickerstaff was an evil, unrelenting man who created something so powerful and unspeakable that it was buried in an unmarked grave with him, but there is one person who remembers what Bickerstaff did – Someone who was there: The Skull that speaks only to Lucy, from the first book. The Whispering Skull…
Yay! I was immediately sucked straight back into the haunted realm of Stroud’s series, it was almost like I’d never been away. The book opens with our three protagonists already in the middle of an overwhelming investigation, and the plot stays at that level of pace throughout the rest of the book, constantly twisting and turning. It’s brilliant to see all our favourite characters back in action, and Lockwood and Lucy are on fine form as a Holmes and Watson style sleuthing team. It’s George who has the great character arc in book two, though – His slow obsession with the Bickerstaff history slowly drives him to distraction, and his friends are so busy searching for the missing artefact, that they don’t notice just how lost their friend is. He becomes distant and haunted, but eventually comes out on top as a truly courageous character, and it’s a slow burning change in him that we as readers are tapped into, even where his fellow agents aren’t. Kipps’ team also show new, less arrogant and more professional sides to themselves towards the second half of the book, making them feel less like the “Karate Kid” style rivals this time. And the introduction of Joplin works as a great parallel to George, but as an adult, demonstrating the same bookish obsessive nature that gets darker throughout the story.
As for the atmosphere – it’s back from The Screaming Staircase, but with more impact than ever before. The way Jonathan manages to create a creeping sense of dread is fantastic – there’s real nods to the classic ghost stories in his writing style (especially M.R. James), and the way he describes the unknowable horrors of Bickerstaff’s experiments really sent a chill up my spine. The history is steeped in a sinister, oppressive feeling that drips from the words, and the mystery is slow and dread filled as it builds throughout the story. Still, just like book one though, The Whispering Skull has great moments of action and genuine humour that snap through the darkness and keeps the characters relatable and fun to read about. I love the entire team at Lockwood & Co, and I always feel compelled to delve into their misadventures. They truly are an ensemble cast on the same footing as Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, and The Whispering Skull is proof that this series is gripping, fun, chilling and so much fun.
Now, Jonathan Stroud sir, WHERE IS BOOK THREE?! You can’t leave me on *that* ending!!
Thanks for Reading, and keep your rapiers to hand, Agents.