Alex Acks’ 2018 Murder on the Titania and Other Steam-Powered Adventures is a collection of short stories set in an America run, not by oligarchs and tech-bros, but by a collection of titled aristocrats. Each noble is eager to expand their pocket kingdom at the expense of their rival dukes. All stories feature Captain Marta Ramos (engineer and thief) and her steadfast subordinate, Meriwether Octavian Simms.
Murder on the Titania
Colonel Geoffrey Douglas, hero of the Canadian Front, security chief to the Grand Duke of Denver, is on the airship Titania to accompany precious jewels intended for the Grand Duke’s daughter. Investigating murder is outside his purview. But murder there is (lots!) and he is the only security professional on board. He is given unrequested assistance as he tries to unravel the tangled motivations that have left bodies scattered throughout the airship.
Where’s Ramos, you ask? Well, that would be telling.
The Curious Case of Miss Clementine Nimowitz (And Her Exceedingly Tiny Dog)
What should have been a straightforward jewel theft is greatly complicated by a very small dog. Plus an unexpected death. Why would anyone want to bludgeon the seemingly harmless Miss Nimowitz?
The Jade Tiger
An embittered Jun Xing calls Captain Ramos’ attention to Lord Pike’s valuable lens collection. Ramos senses that the other woman has a motive beyond spite towards her former employer. But what unmentioned treasure could Jun Xing want Ramos to retrieve?
The Ugly Tin Orrery
The heist itself goes swimmingly, but when one of Ramos’ victims is later found murdered, she deduces that something she stole was of greater value than it appeared. She cannot guess what value it might have and who might value it. She finds herself entangled in events whose scope she cannot begin to fathom.
The Flying Turk
Ramos returns to the Titania. Selected as the test-bed for an advanced new difference engine, the grand airship once again provides the stage for bloody murder.
I am not a great fan of steampunk; nostalgia for the steam era seems (to me at least) to reek of aristocracy and colonialism. However, Acks’ balkanized North America has all the aristocracy and darling little hats one expects from steampunk, but lacks the love of autocracy and classism often found in other steampunk works.
I was reminded of some other detective stories — but not the ones you might expect. Not stories about criminals unwittingly drawn into murder investigations and other unwanted complications — Bernie Rhodenbarr and John Dortmunder, I am looking at you. No, I was reminded more of a certain British author’s fictional investigators, who seem to be incapable of playing a card game or attending a cricket match without stumbling over a dead body. Despite the obvious differences between the piratical Ramos on one hand and the Spinster and the Belgian on the other, it was the minor, incidental cases of that pair that came to mind. Um, and if we’re playing what does this remind me of, there’s Arsène Lupin as well.
Of course, plot alone doesn’t make for an entertaining read. Acks’ characters — the eccentric peyote-consuming engineer pirate queen, her often put-upon subordinate, her long-suffering antagonist Douglas1 ‚and the rest of the cast of supporting characters are why you should try Murder on the Titania.
Who escapes being a Javert by rejecting narrow minded fanaticism and who is not like Ganimard (a police inspector featured in several Arsène Lupin stories) because he has never been encumbered with a clueless assistant like Folenfant.
If you are not familiar with Folenfant, you may have overlooked CinarFrance Animation S.A.’s adaptation of the Lupin stories,