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Angels of Music (2005)

     by Kim Newman

          from Tales of the Shadowmen 2: Gentlemen of the Night, 2005


I love this short story, and so should you.

The wild profusion of references to other things in this story mean that I'm going to get excited with the links. Prepare to go on an internet journey of epic proportions.

The premise of this short story is delightful: three chorus girls from the Paris Opera (Christine Daae, Trilby O'Ferrall, and Irene Adler) receive special training and are handpicked to perform dangerous missions at the behest of their shadowy benefactor (Erik, the Phantom of the Opera), helped along by his right-hand man (The Daroga). There's just too much delight packed into that paragraph to even seize on it all, isn't there? Yes, this is an eighteenth-century parody of the 1970’s Charlie's Angels television series, with the three girls as the Angels, Erik as Charlie, and the daroga as a long-suffering Bosley.

Christine, of course, we Phantom connoisseurs are already familiar with, but the other two are no less entertaining: Irene Adler, of course, is the opera singer extortionist encountered by Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes in his 1891 story A Scandal in Bohemia, one of few women (or people, for that matter) to ever outwit him and get away with her criminal shenanigans. Her inclusion reminds me, of course, of the other Sherlock Holmes crossovers we've already seen, particularly the Meyer novel, which also featured her as a main character. Surprisingly, even though Holmes/Phantom mashups usually end up having to adjust their timelines somewhat to make everything jibe, Newman deftly avoids this with the use of Adler, who turns up in Doyle's stories somewhat later in her life and even mentions having sung as a premiere opera singer in her past, allowing this story to be presumably set before Doyle's without conflict.

And then, of course, there's Trilby. She's the main character of du Maurier's 1894 novel of the same name, and it's very likely that she's one of the inspirations for Leroux's novel itself; the two books share several common themes, most prevalent among them being the hypnotic control and performance of the young woman while under the power of a frightening, shadowy mastermind (in Christine's case, Erik; in Trilby's, Svengali). Time period's a bit more problematic here, since du Maurier's novel was set some thirty years earlier than Leroux's, but with a little date fudging it can squeak by, especially if (and Newman apparently leaves this ambiguous on purpose) you suppose that Erik may in fact be Svengali and the two stories are (or will be) happening somewhat concomitantly. (And while Moriarty, Sherlock’s famous nemesis, is not in A Scandal in Bohemia and has no connection to Irene Adler, some other language in the story suggests that the Phantom might perhaps be him, too.)

There's nothing in particular going on with the daroga as Bosley, but I love both Bosley and the Daroga, so that’s okay.

Newman pulls no punches when it comes to having fun with the concept. The entire story is written in a very believable approximation of the early twentieth-century schlock fiction milieu, but is more sprightly and engaging than many of that era's potboilers. The author loves to explain things in terms of the trio of threes, drawing on the story's television basis; for example, Erik is referred to as the "Trapdoor Lover", "Mesmerist Genius", and "Mastermind of Intrigue" all rolled into one, suggesting that he fulfills the genius extraordinaire role for each of the womens' stories, and the ladies themselves are often referred to in a tryptich (such as the "French nightingale, Irish thrush and American eagle"). It is heavily played up that Christine is in possession of an incredible voice, that Trilby is the most unearthly beautiful of the three, and that Irene is the brains of the trio. It's worth noting that Irene, of the three of them, is more of an "independent contractor" working for him, rather than a protege - her character doesn't fit the easily-influenced mold that the other two do.

You might wonder what the three of them will be doing, exactly, since they are hanging out in a time period that isn't quite suited to the 1970’s action vibe of Charlie's Angels, but they're doing exactly what it seems like they're doing: being adorable asskickers and darling detectives. They're not very good at it, but then again, neither were Charlie's girls.

Erik, lacking a modern teleconference line with speakerphone, instead gives his instructions to the girls from behind the dark mirror in their shared dressing-room, with the daroga on hand to pass out notes and help them as needed, naturally. Oh, and the big baddie, of course, is none other than Josephine Balsamo - the Countess of Cagliostro, renowned from Leblanc's Arsène Lupin stories. This story is basically a smörgåsbord of literary fun.

The story's plot is, like most stories in the same style, fairly unremarkable. The Angels are dispatched to figure out why most of the wealthy, powerful elderly men of Europe are suddenly getting married to a ton of girls from the Countess's "dance school" and apparently completely neglecting to do anything but dote on them, and along the way the Countess's henchmen, abetting her in her badness, attempt to thwart them. Newman isn't overly concerned with the plot; what he's concerned with is the cramming in of as many hilarious references as possible, and in this he is totally successful. I had a moment of incredible cocoa-spewing laughter when the Angels attended the ball and the band was, unmistakeably, a nineteenth-century KISS (perhaps a nod to the 1978 Hessler film and its hilarious attempt to attach itself to the Phantom story?).

The story reaches its crisis point when the daroga is knocked overboard and presumably killed (no!'s all right, nobody ever kills Bosley) and the ladies discover, shortly before being captured, that the Countess's eligible young wives are actually cunningly-made mechanical dolls. That's right... this, ladies and gentlemen, is also Ira Levin’s 1972 novel The Stepford Wives in the 1800s. In the background, "The clowns were now performing some interminable Rhapsody from Bohemia, which made Irene vow to avoid that region in the future."

Erik is oddly altruistically inclined in this story (or, at least, oddly positive and willing to interact with the world, even if he is being paid handsomely for it), but Newman doesn't leave out his creepier aspects entirely; both Christine and Trilby have obviously been heavily hypnotized and meddled with mentally, as at a musical signal from him they turn into perfectly-tuned ninja death machines who have no memory of the incident afterward. This is an obvious nod to both Leroux's Erik and du Maurier's Svengali, as well as possibly being influenced by the 1944 Waggner/Karloff film with its heavy emphasis on hypnotism. Irene, understandably, is creeped out by their sudden, intermittent transformations into blank-eyed zombies.

The Countess calls upon three of her clockwork ladies to defend her, revealing their names to be Barbee, Cyndee, and Annette, who are of course stand-ins for the most popular dolls of all time. Later in the same scene, the Countess (also revealed to be a doll, which is a twist unless, of course, you've actually read The Stepford Wives) performs what is very obviously the bullet-time dodge maneuver from the Wachowski Sisters' 1999 film The Matrix.

Finally, after much derring-do and nonsense (the daroga comes back from the "dead" just in the nick of time - huzzah!), Erik himself comes out to aid the ladies, taking the place of the clockwork band conductor (because only he could do so convincingly, of course!) and hypnotizing Christine and Trilby into singing such pure, piercing high tones that they shatter all the glass and machinery in the place, including the dolls. While Christine says hilariously foreshadowing things about the burst soldier dolls ("I love a man in uniform..."), Irene quits out of fear of Erik's mind-bending powers, whereupon he bestows the usual Charlie-esque round of congratulations before banning her from ever operating in France again lest she earn his ire (perhaps explaining why she's always in England or elsewhere on the continent, bothering Holmes).

But, of course, as we all know, there must always be three Angels, and Erik has just the backup waiting to step in: a darling girl named Olympia. Well, where did you think all the other dolls got their templates from?

And now we all know where Lloyd Webber got the idea for that horrifying wax-doll/sex-robot version of Christine from. Obviously, he was just paying an homage.

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