Most authors of series or stand-alone novels for teenagers base their stories on a strong central character and put him or her into situations that will hopefully entertain, thrill or occasionally make us laugh. The person is the thing. But F.E. Higgins doesn't take this approach. Sitting in her haunted house somewhere in England, with a quill in her hand, a false leg at her side and an eyeball watching her from a shelf over the fireplace, she has created a place which stands at the centre of her dark, witty books.
Urbs Umida is a shadowy city tucked away in the mountains. It's a bleak place. The stinky River Foedus runs through the middle dividing the city into the North and the South districts, each with their own grim problems and gloomy secrets. The South is a maze of slimy streets and dilapidated houses where most citizens live in poverty. The houses in the North are bigger and people there have money, living a life of ease and relative sophistication. But whichever side of the river you live on, Urbs Umida exerts a ghastly grip on all its citizens.
Young Hector Fitzbaudly lives with his butterfly-collecting father on the posh side of the River Foedus. But Hector longs to cross the bridge and investigate the seedy side of the city. He's heard stories and he wants to check the place out for himself. He gets his chance one day in a completely unexpected way.
A mysterious man turns up at the Fitzbaudly mansion and threatens to blackmail Mr Fitzbaudly over a terrible secret from his past. The titular villain, Gulliver Truepin, a one-eyed con artist with an interesting hobby of stealing jewels from the wealthy to make false eyeballs to replace his missing eye, is a ruthless criminal who targets the rich with any ruse he can come up with. He is a master of disguise, so moving around Urbs Umida and its surroundings committing whatever crime he can think up is never a problem.
In the blink of one eyelid, Augustus Fitzbaudley finds himself facing ruin and promptly drops down dead, leaving poor Hector to face destitution. The boy heads off to the South side of the city, swearing revenge on the villain who has killed his father and ruined his life. He discovers that Truepin has now adopted the identity of a rich count and has homed in on Lady Mandible at Wittypits Hall. Hector cunningly hatches a plan to destroy the hideous Gulliver Truepin.
The Eyeball Collector is Higgins' third novel set in Urbs Umiba and its mix of Gothic nastiness, black humour and good, old fashioned story-telling make for another delicious turn-the-lights-off read. Fans of darkly imagined tales will adore it. Higgins' clever and intricate plot moves along at gripping speed, throwing cat-eaters, death by butterfly, hairy monsters, leeches and other pieces of smart nastiness into the mix. An eerie, menacing masterpiece.
John Millen can be contacted on [email protected]