Review by C.J. Bunce
Re-released in book stores last month was Kim Newman’s alternate history/fantasy/steampunk-esque novel Dracula Cha Cha Cha (formerly published as Judgment of Tears), book three of the Anno Dracula series originally released in 1998. You need not read books one and two of the series to be able to fully dive into this incredible and bizarre parallel history story. With vampire books taking up an entire wall at Barnes & Noble, it’s probably a good time for this dense and satisfying novel to be available again. But what makes this even more relevant this year is that it is also an alternate history James Bond novel. That’s right, James, here goes by the Scottish name for James, Hamish, as in Hamish Bond. And Bond is still a spy, but he’s also a vampire, investigating Count Dracula in Rome in 1959.
Unlike the many trite vampire-related offerings in the marketplace, Dracula Cha Cha Cha is no fluffy, light, quick read. Dracula Cha Cha Cha is a dense story. Well-researched to mesh together both fantasy worlds and then cross back and forth into the world of real-life historical figures, it is surprisingly easy to get sucked right in to a world where Count Dracula actually lived, and was not killed by Van Helsing, but went on to marry the widowed Queen Victoria in 1888 and rule England with her as Prince Consort. For this third book in Newman’s series, vampires and warm bodies are all coming to Rome for the marriage of Count Dracula to the young and ethereal Moldovian Princess Asa Vajda, a marriage expected to thrust the Count back into the post-World War II political limelight.
Journalist and vampire Kate Reed has arrived in the city and takes up with a some notable vampires who end up dead, with Kate as a witness. Originally arriving to visit her sick ex-husband Charles Beauregard, ex-British non-vampire spy, she gets blamed for more than one murder, which mysteriously occur at the hands of a masked villain called the Crimson Executioner. The plot focuses on the relationship between three lovers/ex-lovers of Beauregard–Kate, as well as Geneviève Dieudonné–a 400 year old vampire who has the look of a 16-year-old and is caring for Charles at his death, and Penelope Churchward, also a vampire and longtime friend to Kate who wants to prevent the aging Charles from dying by finally “turning” him. As we follow Kate’s story she slides further and further into the underbelly of Rome and its vampire world, far more en vogue and seductive than the vampire world of Britain. Ultimately she is found drenched in blood at the site of the death of the famous Count with no memory of recent events. The Count himself only makes a brief appearance in the novel, at the first meeting with his wife-to-be, at his grand wedding.
Hot on the trail of a Russian spy with teeth like Jaws, a sharp-brimmed hat like Oddjob, and a white cat-like Blofeld from the movie You Only Live Twice, our spy Bond becomes intertwined in the two murder plots as he pays a visit to Beauregard, the elder and notable former spymaster from the Diogenes Club, the organization keeping an eye on Count Dracula’s actions. Bond still drives an Aston Martin, and drinks a “shaken, not stirred” blood martini. His lines are straight from the real-world Bond novels and even chapter headings are novel titles or plays on titles, such as From Moldavia with Love and Live and Let Die. Like an Ian Fleming novel, we get Bond engaged with a double-crossing Bond girl, some hand to hand fight scenes, including one where Geneviève must rescue Bond, and a great life and death car chase. Just as the new movie poster book cover evokes, Dracula Cha Cha Cha could make a great film.
What really makes the world of 1959 stand out are the vivid descriptions of places, clothes, trends, and people. Newman pulls in anyone and everyone from fiction’s past–vampires live forever so he could select from 1888 to 1959 to populate his world–as well as tying in real-world characters, famous and infamous. This means Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper co-existed, Orson Welles is a magician who gets interviewed as a witness to Dracula’s death, vampire Edgar Allan Poe is active in Italian culture in the 1950s, and Churchill, Dali and Errol Flynn co-occupy the world of Dr. No, Clark Kent, Fu Manchu, Michael Corleone and TV’s Addams family. Newman’s choices tend to have some tie to the world of Dracula–including real-life people who may have been in Dracula movies of the past, or fictional characters featured in Bram Stoker’s work or later adaptations and spin-off works. The societal strata resulting from a world where Dracula and vampires thrived and become the masters of haute culture, fashion, wealth and elite status is clever and engaging, even for readers who aren’t fans of the vampire genre.
Newman’s Italy will be familiar to fans of Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen novels. Only here instead of cappuccino everyone goes to bars and coffee shops for their various blood drinks. Dracula Cha Cha Cha is actually light on gore except for these regular blood-lettings.
A frothy and rich read, Dracula Cha Cha Cha in its new edition includes the new Anno Dracula novella Aquarius 1968. Dracula Cha Cha Cha is available in bookstores and a discount trade paperback is available at Amazon.com. Other books in the series are also available: Anno Dracula, The Bloody Red Baron, and the pre-sale for the coming new novel set in 1976, Johnny Alucard.