Excerpt from Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Novel

by Nick Harkaway

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  • First Published:
    Mar 2012, 496 pages
    Oct 2012, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Print Excerpt

Speaking of debts, he wonders sometimes—when he contemplates the high days and the dark days of his time as the heir of crime—whether Mathew ever killed anyone. Or, indeed, whether he killed a multitude. Mobsters, after all, are given to arguing with one another in rather bloody ways, and the outcomes of these discussions are often bodies draped like wet cloth over barstools and behind the wheels of cars. Is there a secret graveyard somewhere, or a pig farm, where the consequences of his father’s breezy amorality are left to their final rest? And if there is, what liability does his son inherit on that score?

In reality, the ground floor is entirely given over to Joe’s workshop and saleroom. It’s high and mysterious, with things under dust sheets and—best of all—wrapped in thick black plastic and taped up in the far corner “to treat the woodworm.” Of recent days these objects are mostly nothing more than a couple of trestles or benches arranged to look significant when buyers come by, but some are the copper-bottomed real thing—timepieces, music boxes, and best of all: hand-made mechanical automata, painted and carved and cast when a computer was a fellow who could count without reference to his fingers.

It’s impossible, from within, not to know where the warehouse is. The smell of old London whispers up through the damp boards of the sale room, carrying with it traces of river, silt and mulch, but by some fillip of design and aging wood it never becomes obnoxious. The light from the window slots, high above ground level and glazed with that cross-wired glass for security, falls at the moment on no fewer than five Edinburgh long-case clocks, two pianolas, and one remarkable object which is either a mechanised rocking horse or something more outré for which Joe will have to find a rather racy sort of buyer. These grand prizes are surrounded by lesser ephemera and common-or-garden stock: crank-handle telephones, gramophones and curiosities. And there, on a plinth, is the Death Clock.

It’s just a piece of Victorian tat, really. A looming skeleton in a cowl drives a chariot from right to left, so that—to the western European observer, used to reading from left to right—he is coming to meet us. He has his scythe slung conveniently across his back for easy reaping, and a scrawny steed with an evil expression pulls the thing onward, ever onward. The facing wheel is a black clock with very slender bone hands. It has no chime; the message is perhaps that time passes without punctuation, but passes all the same. Joe’s grandfather, in his will, commended it to his heir for “special consideration”—the mechanism is very clever, motivated by atmospheric fluctuation—but the infant Joe was petrified of it, and the adolescent resented its immutable, morbid promise. Even now—particularly now, when thirty years of age is visible in his rear-view mirror and forty glowers at him from down the road ahead, now that his skin heals a little more slowly than it used to from solder burn and nicks and pinks, and his stomach is less a washboard and more a comfy if solid bench—Joe avoids looking at it.

The Death Clock also guards his only shameful secret, a minor, practical concession to the past and the financial necessities. In the deepest shadows of the warehouse, next to the leaky part of the wall and covered in a grimy dustsheet, are six old slot machines—genuine one-armed bandits—which he is refurbishing for an old acquaintance named Jorge. Jorge (“Yooorrr-geh! With passion like Pasternak!” he tells new acquaintances) runs a number of low dives which feature gambling and other vices as their main attractions, and Joe’s job is to maintain these traditional machines—which now dispense tokens for high-value amounts and intimate services rather than mere pennies—and to bugger them systematically so that they pay out on rare occasions or according to Jorge’s personal instruction. The price of continuity in the clockworking business is minor compromise.

Excerpted from Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. Copyright © 2012 by Nick Harkaway. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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