In late 19th-century London, a young man falls to his death from a tower room - but the window of the room has been opened from the outside. Later, another young man shares a similar fate.
Edward Moon, proprietor of the Theatre of Marvels, and his assistant, the Somnambulist, continue their conjuring shows to increasingly smaller audiences. Frankly, Moon is bored, delighted when an elderly lady asks for his help in solving a murder case. Unfortunately, before Moon can whet his appetite on the new case, it is solved, casting Moon once more into the doldrums.
Not to worry. Soon Inspector Merryweather approaches Edward and the Somnambulist to consider another case: the death of Cyril Honeyman, the man who plunged to his death. On the trail of Honeyman’s demise, the Inspector, Moon and the Somnambulist are led to a group of travelers and one Human Fly. Murmuring an obscure warning to Moon, the Human Fly escapes, climbs to nearby rooftops and tumbles to his own grisly death. Yet another enigma.
In a series of bizarre contretemps, the plot unfolds, Moon and his assistant drawn to an opium den, a brothel of aberrations, the Church of the Summer Kingdom, and the candle-lit rooms of a local medium who predicts certain doom for London within ten days.
There is the Directorate, the secret arm of the government whose extreme message is delivered to Moon by the albino Mr. Skimpole and Thomas Cribb, an ugly little man who is familiar with the past and the future, the key to unraveling all the mysterious elements of this obscure plot.
From the luxurious rooms of the grotesque Survivors Club to the bowels of Newgate prison, where an obese tattooed fiend whispers to Moon about the unfolding nefarious plot against the city, the novel is filled with strange events and even stranger inhabitants, including the eight-foot tall mute, milk-quaffing Somnambulist, who is Moon’s right hand man.
Although the book is titled The Somnambulist and this character is integral to the plot, the importance of the Somnambulist or the reason for his inability to speak is never explained, the golem reduced to outrageous spelling on a chalkboard to make any remarks to his companion.
Set in the murky alleys and the netherworld of tunnels that criss-cross the city, Moon pursues tantalizing clues without ever realizing the extent of danger until the bloody denouement. By then, an aging poet is staggering about leaking amniotic fluid, a religion has turned to righteous slaughter, and Moon stands, unbelieving, in the midst of chaos.
For the life of me, I could never quite believe or make sense of this macabre tale of anomaly, greed and hubris.