Owen has a miserable life, an unpaid servant in his cruel aunt Gwen’s boarding house in Llandudno, his father missing, presumed dead in The Great War and his mother confined in an asylum. His future seems bleak, until an unusual guest arrives.
Otto Schilling is a ventriloquist, a frail and elderly man whose luggage attests to his long travelling life. His dummy, Mr Sparks, alarms and impresses Owen – he seems almost to speak for himself, his sarcasm and imperious manner commanding his operator, rather than the reverse. When Mr Schilling dies in the night, Mr Sparks reveals the true extent of his remarkable powers, urging Owen to travel with him and thus escape his life of drudgery.
Owen’s reluctance is mitigated by Mr Sparks’ persuasive powers and by the promise of a visit to his mother, who is reduced to a hysterical state, sensing the intrinsic evil of the dummy. It is clear that Owen is in great danger, but he continues his journey, unable to leave Mr Sparks, trapped by his desire to be needed and by a sense of responsibility for his travelling companion, which the dummy has managed to engender.
The narrative mix is spiced by a desperate pursuit and a mystical twist. Quinn, a follower of the beliefs of the Knights Templar, sworn to rid the world of evil has hired a lumpen ex-policeman, Wilkins, to assist him in tracking down Mr Sparks. The wooden dummy is the embodiment of Charles Lacombe, killed in a diving accident but restored by means of galvanisation by his wood-carving father Lucien. The dummy is over 200 years old and has continued to exist only because of its skill in identifying the needy, the lonely, the disenfranchised and enslaving them by promising them what they most want.
The plot is multi-layered: it is a stirring adventure and a consideration of loneliness, survival and control. There is some over-reliance on coincidence – for instance, the discovery of Owen’s father, shell-shocked and amnesiac, whose memories Mr Sparks restores, but the narrative holds water and will appeal to more thoughtful readers who enjoy the unexpected.