Herbert Lemon is Lost-and-Founder at the Grand Nautilus Hotel in the town of Eerie-On-Sea. One night, his sleep is interrupted by Violet Parma climbing in his basement window — a girl in trouble who needs to hide, and has a mystery to solve. And who better to do so, she thinks, than a Lost-and-Founder?
Herbert is thrown into a quirky adventure of vivid characters and strange incidents — a sinister writer, lost luggage, a prophesying mermonkey, missing parents, a ghostly, vengeful Captain, fish and chips, and the local legend of the Malamander: a vicious sea creature guarding a treasure that grants the owner their deepest wishes.
Thomas Taylor’s Malamander is a fast-paced, exciting adventure story where the quirkiness is balanced neatly with genuine danger. It’s easy to read and the story fairly rollicks along. His setting of Eerie-on-Sea is especially well-developed — whimsical antique shops, magical book stores that dispense exactly the books you need (whether you want them or not) by mechanical mermonkey, museums of odd specimens; the evocative warm sanctuary of Herbie’s basement cave, the palpable chill of the lashing wind and the freezing snow. Taylor’s plotting is concise and tight. He builds the story carefully from clues Violet and Herbie discover, and, even if the twists are obvious, they satisfy the story.
The joy of the book is in its characters. Herbert Lemon narrates with a dry wit and a heartening positivity. There’s a delightful mischievousness to him, especially in baiting his cranky boss, Mr Mollusc, who is intent on getting rid of him. Violet Parma is an initially suspicious character — we wonder if she’s telling Herbie the whole truth about her reasons for being in Eerie-on-Sea. But she and Herbie soon become a close-knit team, led by Violet’s spirited insistence on solving the mystery of her parents’ disappearance, which is inextricably linked to the deadly Malamander and its genie-like treasure.
They’re not the only ones interested in the legend — Sebastian Eels, a shifty writer and authority on the myth is prepared to do anything to get the treasure, including disappearing young girls and boys. Herbie’s employer, the crippled Lady Kraken, who sits in her tower room of the hotel and watches the town through her cameraluna (powered by the moon), wants the treasure to restore her family.
Family and belonging are themes that emerge throughout the book — Herbie is apparently an orphan, found washed ashore in a crate of lemons. The heart of the story lies in Violet’s missing parents and her search for identity. This is elegantly signposted in Herbie’s role as Lost-and-Founder, bringing people back together with their lost items.
Taylor clearly has fun with names too, whether it’s the owner of the fish and chip diner, Mr Seegol, or the scruffy professional beachcomber, Mrs Fossil, who owns a Flotsamporium. These small details raise the whimsy, which fortunately never becomes absurd, as Taylor grounds it in the real. They also heighten the action scenes, which escalate into some dramatic and quite violent scares.
Malamander is, for most of its length, action-packed, engaging, and often amusing. Even when the finale becomes a traditional monster hunt, there’s a sense of the stakes being raised for both Violet and Herbie, and the ultimate fate of the villains is affecting. With a few loose ends left hanging, Eerie-on-Sea clearly has more mystery to divulge and thankfully, we’re getting a sequel.
Stewart Sheargold’s short stories have appeared in various collections for Obverse Books. His first book for children, The World of Lies, was published in 2018. He wrote the audio plays Bernice Summerfield and The Mirror Effect and Doctor Who: Red. Long-listed for the 2017 Hachette Richell Prize and the 2018 Disquiet Literary Prize, he is the editor of the short story collection Wild Thymes on the 22.