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'Strange Practice:' The Doctor Is In

Jason Sheehan is currently the restaurant critic atPhiladelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

The Van Helsing family has a long history in the literature of monster-fighting – they've been stomping around the midnight moors and castles since at least 1897 when Professor Abraham Van Helsing first crossed paths with his biggest bad, Dracula.

Since then, the Van Helsing family has stretched both forward and back in time, encompassing generations. They're almost always doctors (of one kind or another). They're almost always academics with a sideline in man-on-monster combat. As far as I can recall, they're always dudes and they've always got a reason for wanting to put the stake to vampires.

Until now.

Vivian Shaw's Strange Practice is about the newest member of the family, Dr. Greta Helsing (the family dropped the Van decades ago, for political reasons) who has, as the title suggests, a rather unusual medical practice. She is a doctor to London's population of the "differently alive," meaning various ghouls and vampires and mummies and whatnot, all of whom live secretly amid the hustle and bustle of modern England.

She gets to fashion new bones for mummies feeling the cost of entropy, treat ear infections in baby ghouls, see to the chronic pulmonary issues of earth-bound demons and secure human blood for polite vampires through her connections at local blood banks. She grew up with vampires in the sitting room and demons in the parlor, and being able to help them to live their best lives through her work at her small, private clinic is all she has ever wanted to do. Right up until someone tries to cut her throat from the backseat of her car, all the while muttering about purging the world of demons and the unclean.

Strange Practice is the first book in a promised series, and it reads like one. The set-up is rote and unsurprising. The careful drawing together of Greta's band of friends (including two vampires, a museum curator, an actual demon from hell and a basement full of ghouls) to fight the bad guys is textbook. Even the big kerfuffle at the end, where they all go out to confront the evil lurking beneath London, feels somehow dull.

The story of 'Strange Practice' — the actual plodding footsteps of the plot — is wholly secondary to the joys of hanging out with Shaw's characters.

But honestly, none of that really matters. The story of Strange Practice — the actual plodding footsteps of the plot — is wholly secondary to the joys of hanging out with Shaw's characters. Her true gift as a writer is not for the action, but for the quiet moments before. It's not for the Eureka! conclusion, but for the shuffling papers, long nights and hundred cups of tea that precede it.

There's a fussy, practical, rainy-day comfort to her characters and the way they interact. There's Ruthven, the 400-year-old vampire with his impeccable manners, beautiful London house and Italian espresso machine. Varney, the even older and more famous vampire (scandalized in the penny dreadfuls back in his heyday), now gone moody and dire in a way that is not always as amusing as Shaw seems to think it is. Fastitocalon is an old family friend and now Greta's sworn (if somewhat sickly) protector. He's also an actual demon from actual hell (which he misses quite a lot) and friends with the actual devil (Samael, who he calls Sam). And then there's August Cranswell, from the British Museum, who is just a man, sadly mortal, and all the more awesome for knowing it and wanting to hang with the monsters anyway.

The greatest joys in Strange Practice come from the moments when the entire gang is just sitting together in the kitchen, drinking tea and brandy, talking over each other and trying to figure out the solution to some mystery. They come from the goofy asides — like Greta and Fastitocalon doing a bit from Monty Python while waiting to pick up his COPD medication or discussions of the boredom of immortality and how one might battle it by learning to make latte art or rebuilding cars or struggling with the wifi.

In that, Strange Practice becomes a book to settle into. A warm quilt of a thing that's made for curling up with. And when it does finally come to an end (with a bit of annoying ex machina), you'll be sad to say goodbye (for now) to Greta and Fass and Ruthven and Cranswell. Which, I suppose, is exactly what the first book in any series is meant to do. To make you want one more joke, one more strange discussion of mummy foot bones or the science of spiritual apparitions, just one more cup of tea with your new friends before they go.

And that's what Shaw is best at. Because she's only just gone back between the covers of Strange Practice, but I miss this newest Helsing already.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Sheehan