This third audio-drama boxed set from Big Finish gives us the further adventures of Madame Vastra, a Silurian detective in late-Victorian London, with her Cockney wife Jenny and their Sontaran manservant Strax. I was hoping to get this review done before the newest set, Heritage 4 arrived, but then the package from the UK was in my mailbox a couple of days, so I’d better get moving.
As with the Heritage 1 and 2 sets, there are three separate mystery stories, each on its own CD.
As suggested by the title, this first story has a family theme. The focus is primarily on Jenny’s estranged family and background, but there are conversations about the family she has now at Paternoster Row as well the blood relatives she left behind years ago.
A mystery involving lions and crocodiles in London leads Vastra to investigate the sewers beneath the city, when things suddenly turn personal. She ends up kidnapped and chained in a circus sideshow exhibit. She’s not alone; also on exhibit are other human “freaks” and a blue, four-armed alien lady.
“There are no monsters here,” Vastra declares to her new alien friend.
“Personally,” the alien responds, “I have always found humans terrifying.”
There’s just a hint about Vastra’s personal history too, indicating that this is not the first time she’s been exhibited in chains by ignorant 19th-century humans.
Meanwhile, Jenny’s mother has come to call at Paternoster Row. We learn that Flint was not Jenny’s original last name, but one she chose for herself when she had to survive on the streets alone. But now that she’s doing well, living in a posh house with the famous veiled detective, Mom is interested in seeing Jenny again. After some harsh words with her estranged daughter, Mom scarpers with the best tea set… but that’s not the most remarkable thing about her visit. Why is she wearing a Sontaran homing device?
Strax and Jenny head off in pursuit, and the two plots collide at the circus.
There’s also a missing brother who may not be who he seems, a dangerous artefact that the alien is seeking to destroy to prevent the end times, and another allusion to whatever lies below the Thames; we had a few of those in the previous stories. Vastra is at the crux of it all, and her abduction by Jenny’s sideshow-managing parents is not as coincidental as it first appears to be.
The ending is kind of muddled–after three listens I’m still not sure exactly how this was resolved–but it’s interesting for the information about Jenny’s and Vastra’s backgrounds, and there’s an amusing bit where Strax wants a lion for a pet. I’m rather sorry he didn’t get it.
I seem to be partial to parodies. In the Heritage 2 set, my favorite story was the one that parodied a Carnacki the Ghost-Finder tale. This story parodies The Hound of the Baskervilles, while suggesting that it inspired it.
Way back when Vastra was first seen working in London in the Doctor Who Christmas Special, “The Snowmen,” viewers were informed that her career as a private consulting detective led Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes (although Doyle changed a few things, since his Victorian readers weren’t ready to believe that the great detective was a lizard-woman from Earth’s earliest days).
By this time the present story begins, Holmes has become so popular that Vastra often finds herself compared to him, to her increasing irritation. She’s threatened Doyle with lawsuits to make him stop writing his modified versions of her adventures, and Strax has gone around to Doyle’s house to threaten him personally–leading to Holmes’s demise at Reichenbach Falls.
Not that that changes the impressions of the general public. “You really are just like Sherlock Holmes!” exclaims her latest client, Dr. Poorgrass.
The doctor has traveled up from Longworth Cove in the west country to consult her about the death of the local landowner Sir Dudley Skelton under strange and remarkable circumstances: near the coast where Sir Dudley was last seen were the footprints of a gigantic chicken! Legends of the monstrous Mer-Chicken have been spoken of around the Cove for centuries, but here it seems that there is some fact behind the story.
Vastra, Jenny, and Strax return to Longworth Cove with Dr. Poorgrass to investigate.
Like Sherlock Holmes, Madame Vastra is not centrally involved in the mystery. Soon after the trio arrives, she sees an ancient diadem in the local museum–a piece of jewelry she recognizes as being much older than any human civilization–and learns that it was discovered in a vast caves beneath the cliffs known as the Devil’s Lair (there are lots of Devilish place names around the Cove). Once there, Vastra confirms what she had suspected, that the caves are the entrance to a long-empty and ruined home of some of her own people. She leaves Jenny behind to explore more deeply, and learns that the cave isn’t empty after all; there is one Silurian guardian left behind, even older than she is, who passes on to her a relic from their own era. It is now Vastra’s to guard.
While Vastra is otherwise occupied, Jenny investigates and eventually solves the mystery of the Mer-Chicken while Strax fends off the amorous advances of the landlady at the Inn. He perceives her attentions as attacks in “stealth mode.”
It’s an entertaining story, although not as laugh-out-loud funny as The Screaming Ceiling. The clues for the mystery are set up so that we can solve it along with Jenny–although once you encounter a character named Merripit in a take-off from The Hound of the Baskervilles, the culprit becomes too easy to spot.
Back in London, Jenny and Vastra come to terms with some personal issues that have arisen between them, and Vastra is left with a relic (presumably the same artefact that was alluded to in the previous story) that whispers to her: “Sleep… until we are ready.”
Truth and Bones
Vastra and her companions are specially invited to attend an event at the “Temple of Tutmose”: the unwrapping of the mummy of an ancient Egyptian princess. “Great mysteries to be revealed,” the invitation promises.
Mummy unwrapping parties were an actual thing that was done in the Victorian era, but when this particular mummy is removed from its wrappings, the great detective observes a tattoo on its arm in modern English. The woman has not been dead for thousands of years, but is fairly fresh.
This sounds like an intriguing opening for a murder mystery, but the issue of using freshly dead bodies to make fake mummies is dropped almost immediately once the truth is discovered, so I’m assuming these people died natural deaths.
The brief investigation of the back rooms at the Temple leads the Paternoster Gang to become reacquainted with some old acquaintances from Heritage 1–the entrepreneurial-minded Sontaran Stonn and his human lover Tom Foster. The mummy unwrapping parties are Stonn’s effort to make some money from the current Egyptian craze, with “locally sourced” corpses and a quick-wrapping machine of his own invention. Tom does the artwork on the mummies and their artefacts.
That might be the end of the story (a very short one), but there’s a squad of Sontarans in London; they want Strax and Stonn back in the ranks, unless the two have been too contaminated by their contact with other species. In which case, they’ll be executed.
Tom and Jenny use the mummy-wrapper to wrap up the Sontaran commander, but it’s only a short term measure. The group breaks up as they try to create an effective defense against invasion. Jenny gets taken as an indomitable hostage while Tom and Vastra try to locate the other Silurian warrior who used to work with Tom and Stonn (they don’t find her). Strax and Stonn, meanwhile, head for Stonn’s emergency stockpile of acid (which doesn’t get used), and have a personal conversation in which they reveal that they have been corrupted on Sontaran terms and have found happiness in their present lives.
Vastra has been receiving psychic messages from whatever’s trapped in that relic she acquired in the previous episode. It turns out to be an eons-old goddess who “stole power from the Dark Ones” and it gives her helpful advice on how to defeat the Sontarans–but at a price. The goddess wants Vastra to become her avatar (in the vessel and instrument of a god sense, not the cute little picture to represent yourself online sense). A compromise must be made.
There’s a twist: the Sontarans are aware that Vastra has the relic, which they consider to be a powerful super-weapon. That’s what they’re really after on Earth.
Another good story. I’m happy to see Tom and Stonn come back and their relationship with the Paternosters develop. The plot also takes up a step farther along in the over-arcing Heritage storyline. We’ve had some intriguing clues, but I have no idea where that will end up.