The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss Simon & Schuster $218 It's been a while since we had a decent Edwardian thriller. Since about 1915, in fact. Mark Gatiss is indulging a whim. A member of Britain's League of Gentlemen, a gothic-pastiche television comedy, Gatiss was born out of his time. His fascinations are with the nostalgic reminiscences of his youth, when tales of the Empire and the exploits of gentlemen, cads and foreign- looking henchmen were still a staple of a young Englishman's reading. The Vesuvius Club, his fourth book (and the first that's not part of the Dr Who series), mixes the aristocratic decadence of the Hellfire Club (a group that met on country estates to role-play randy clergyman and wanton nuns) with a Conan Doyle-esque murder mystery. Gatiss borrows ideas from all over the place, blending them to achieve the most concentrated form of costume-novel he can imagine. His devilishly handsome protagonist, Lucifer Box, lives next door to the British prime minister and is a spy on Her Majesty's Secret Service. Like George MacDonald Fraser's Harry Flashman, his sexual energies are boundless, although his eyes wander as hungrily over the valets as the chambermaids. While preoccupied with the lovely Bella Pok, his most dashingly heroic scene is the rescue of another of his conquests, the young Charlie Jackpot. Box is a straight-talking, straight-acting bounder, who is nonetheless destined to come out on the side of right and good. As he probes the deaths of a number of top scientists, mixing with society's elite and its down-at-heels, he uncovers a secret society known as the Vesuvius Club. No need to say more, other than that Box will win out. The book itself is an easy enough read. It has the same matter-of-fact tone, underpinned by deeply flawed logic, that Gatiss' League of Gentlemen Christmas special had, with obviously drawn characters harking back to Dickens' Tiny Tim and Scrooge. This, of course, is part of the humour, and Gatiss has subtitled it 'A bit of fluff' in case anyone thinks it aspires to be something more. Perhaps, too, this is why he puts more into recreating the style of the Edwardian thriller than he does into making it funny. It is, when all's said and done, a pretty folly - the self-indulgence of a man suddenly fashionable and feted by London publishers. The novel's joke is that everything is done to excess. But, while being full of quirkiness, there are few actually humorous moments. There are no characters like his incompetent vet Chinnery, from the TV series, carelessly dispatching sick animals to their maker. Much of the wit in The Vesuvius Club is in the sublime delivery of the narrative. Gatiss is no literary lion, but there are some sparkling lines ('something cheeky in the rhododendrons') and Box's likeable rogue is a well-developed character. His adventures - enacted against a backdrop of gaslight vapours, secret passages and garish social occasions - recreates a vision of London in which Jack the Ripper or Dr Crippen would feel at home. Fans of Sherlock Holmes or the Hammer horror films of the 1970s may well get right into this book. Superficially, too, it is - as Lucifer Box might say - a splendid edition. The art nouveau design, on the cover and dust jacket, and the excellent illustrations by Ian Bass greatly enhance its appeal. If nothing else, it should catch the eye for Christmas - like a charming, but facile, turn of the (last) century curiosity.