Henry Lamb, formerly the child star of a BBC sitcom, is working a dead-end job in London’s Storage and Record Retrieval unit. He’s helplessly single, hopelessly in love with his landlady, and he can’t escape his oppressive mother. When his alcoholic grandfather falls suddenly into a coma, he learns that his family is tied to a secret government agency known as the Directorate, which for over a hundred years has been fighting a clandestine war to protect the people of the United Kingdom from an ancient and malevolent force.
Their enemy? Nothing less than the British royal family.
The Domino Men is a funny and often gripping entertainment, a wry mash-up of espionage thriller and Lovecraftian horror reminiscent of the Hellboy graphic novels. It is also a satire that cleverly draws parallels between the tropes of cosmic horror and the mundane tyrannies of the modern bureaucratic state.
Though The Domino Men takes place in the same world as Barnes’ first book, The Somnambulist, it is not properly speaking a sequel, and readers may enjoy this novel’s mysteries and intrigues without knowledge of what has come before. Queen Victoria, fearing the downfall of the Empire, made a deal with—well, not the devil exactly, but something quite bad. Now, conscripted into the Directorate by its gilled and aquarium-bound chief, Henry must thwart the House of Windsor by turning to something arguably worse: the Domino Men of the title, a pair of immortal goons who delight in human suffering but who possess the secret that could tip the war in the Directorate’s favor.
In what may be the novel’s most effective gambit, interpolations from the opposition are scattered throughout Henry’s account of his final stand, representing the voice of doubt and fear that threatens to undo the protagonist and maybe the world itself. Though the novel veers at times into overtly grotesque terrain, its horrors are usually of the subtle and psychological kind, a dark lens through which to observe a beguiling story of power and corruption.
Jedediah Berry is the author of The Manual of Detection, published by Penguin Press.