Skip Benninghouse penned this review.
Thirty years after conceiving the first Jack Flanders audio adventure, The Fourth Tower of Inverness, Meatball Fulton celebrated the anniversary by bringing his popular character back to where it all began — to an incredible mansion high atop a mountain.
Return to Inverness opens with Jack inheriting the titular estate after the death of his aunt, Lady Jowls. Her will stipulates that all who are living at the mansion are allowed to do so for as long as they like. These days a new cast of characters inhabit the mansion, with only Old Far Seeing Art remaining from Jack’s first visit almost three decades ago. (At least that’s how it appears.) Wham Bam Shazam cooks the meals for the new residents, who include the highly impatient and slightly sardonic Lady Pompon as well as her niece Evie. Then there’s the mystical Madame Trunknose, a student of the tarot. And it isn’t long before another guest arrives, the opera singer Madama Malto Paltzo.
Shortly after Jack assumes his place as lord of the manor strange things being to happen. He moves into the quarters of his late uncle, Henry Jowls, and hangs his clothes in the closet. A short while later Jack finds that they’ve disappeared and been replaced by his uncle’s safari outfits. Soon the entire mansion is beset by a rash of such swaps. But odd things are afoot outside the mansion as well. A giant mushroom-like structure has begun growing in the woods and a chthonic rumbling engulfs the entire estate, which causes Madame Trunknose to fear that a pagan deity of some kind is rising from a long slumber. There are, after all, ruins of an old temple on the grounds.
For Return to Inverness Fulton has eschewed not only the Eastern mysticism of his first tale in favor of Wicca and neo-pagan lore but also the annoying habit of constantly thrusting these metaphysical ideas in the listeners’ ears. In The Fourth Tower he went out of his way to remind us of his theme with a near constant stream of lectures which soon became diatribes. Here the neo-paganism is injected in small doses. While each chapter is prefaced by an aphorism spoken by a woman with an Scottish accent, the plot is given plenty of room to breathe and the characters plenty of time to play.
For instance, Jack calls in his old friend and veteran of previous adventures, Mojo Sam the Yudu Man. He dispenses his wisdom to the denizens of Inverness while Jack is out seeking answers to his new mysteries. Mojo’s relationship with the brackish Lady Pompon develops over the course of the story and he puts her on a diet of voodoo yoga which yields surprising results. The characters here are more fully developed because they aren’t constantly lecturing Jack. Instead they do things like irritate each other and make one another laugh as the mystery unfolds before them. Fulton’s commitment to his characters is perhaps best exemplified by his use of cutaways, a technique he used sparingly in The Fourth Tower. As Jack is out adventuring on the grounds of the estate, the action often cuts back to what is happening inside the mansion. This allows us to get to know the inhabitants instead of having them act merely to push Jack along on his quest.
In addition to giving all of the characters space to develop, there is also plenty of humor, a Jack Flanders trademark. For example, there is the gag where Madama Malto Paltzo gets lost in the walls of the mansion and subjects everyone to non-stop arias. The voice acting is wonderful and the production again features a great aural atmosphere. There’s more music to be had here, which adds a nice light-hearted feel to the proceedings and sets a leisurely pace to the story. Return to Inverness is less serious than its predecessor and it benefits greatly from this. A cloying urgency to gain enlightenment has been replaced by gentle nods towards an explanation. This allows the plot to unfold seemingly at its own pace and the listener to enjoy the characters with all their quirks. Despite being an hour shorter than The Fourth Tower, Return to Inverness is a fuller and more satisfying story.