Another book review this week. People seem to like book reviews and this book is a thriller set in Victorian London, so it seems an appropriate thing to show up here. And it may even encourage people to review their own choice of thriller set in Victorian London. Not that I have anything in particular in mind.
Anyway, the publishers sent me a copy of Blackstone and the Rendezvous with Death by Sally Spencer and asked if I could maybe write something about it. Because reviews are really important to getting a book out there in a crowded market. Have I mentioned that?
So here is my review. If you were to write a review (for Amazon, say), it wouldn't have to be nearly as long as this. You could just say that Victorian thrillers are great. People should buy them. Especially if you can get them on Kindle for just £2.82/$3.99 at mybook.to/BackHome.
Anyway, to business:
Blackstone and the Rendezvous with Death
Blackstone and the Rendezvous with Death is set in the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee: 1897. It's a crime thriller which travels from the East End to the homes of the aristocracy as Inspector Blackstone struggles to solve the mystery of an aristocrat’s son who was found murdered on an insalubrious stretch of the River Thames. Issues of class and poverty feature prominently in the story, so, having just written Back Home, a story of crime and violence in the London slums of 1859 where issues of class and poverty are also pretty central, I expected to be on familiar ground.
I was reminded, yet again, just what an era of change the late 19th century was. 1897 is often seen as the height of the Victorian era, but we are moving much more into Edwardian times. I was constantly taken aback by the modernity of the story. People are always on the telephone and at one stage using a telephone box. There is a reference to a Remington typewriting machine that looks at least twenty years old. Horseless carriages are referred to as automobiles. I was sure these were anachronisms, but a quick tour of the Internet proved that they were not. Admittedly Blackstone does seem to be on the cutting edge of things. Remington typewriters have been around but very little more than twenty years. There weren't very many telephone boxes or automobiles. But Sally Spencer seems to know her stuff. The only apparent error I picked up was a mistake in the licensing laws, which unfortunately occurs right at the beginning of the book and made me unduly suspicious of the rest of it. Still, pub closing times were a complex area with different rules for different kinds of pub and frequent changes in the law, so perhaps she is right and I am wrong.
The important thing is not that Ms Spencer seems to be well ahead on the game of "try to catch the author out": it is that her thorough grounding in the detail of the period reflects the confidence with which she takes us through it. This London of 1897 is a world away from the London I wrote about in 1859. Confident, modern in a way that is recognisable to those of us who knew the city in the 20th century, a society and a city comfortable on the cutting edge of technology, assured of its natural right to rule over much of the world. The appalling callousness towards the lives of the poor which had characterised London only fifty years earlier has passed. The poor are still poor, as the author frequently reminds us, but few of them are dying of starvation in the streets. Proper sewerage, the availability of clean water and improvements in housing mean that life may be grim but it is civilised.
Against this broader background of London life Spencer draws a more detailed picture of some aspects of the city, particularly of "Little Russia" in the East End. I was unaware of the number of Russian emigres who had formed their own world in the alien land of London, complete with shops selling Russian food and banks catering for those wanting to transfer money back to families at home in the East. It was a fascinating glimpse of a bit of London’s history that was completely new to me.
Spencer's research is extensive and her descriptions of people and places are convincing without suffering from long paragraphs which mark out the less sophisticated historical novelist, determined to shovel in all the research that they have done. There is perhaps an element of this in the detailed descriptions of Queen Victoria's Jubilee parade, but it must have been a splendid sight and I think we can forgive anybody who wants to dwell on it at length. And it does come at a crucial moment in the plot.
As far as the plot goes, it's more thriller than detective story. The villains leave a chain of corpses for the detectives to follow and eventually they are tracked and their evil plan is foiled in the nick of time. [No real spoilers there.] The plot relies rather heavily on a deus ex machina figure to appear at moments of crisis and there is a conveniently helpful love interest to explain life in Little Russia to our inspector, but these tropes are well within the rules of the genre and I was happy to go along with them. Indeed I was happy to go along with the whole thing, as Ms Spencer has an easy writing style that carries you effortlessly through a plot filled with incident.
The best historical fiction, I think, should entertain while giving you some insight into a past world that you might not be familiar with. Blackstone and the Rendezvous with Death does exactly that and Spencer is to be congratulated on her achievement. If I have one quibble it is the opening. The book starts with a prologue in which a character is chased through the streets of London on a dark foggy night until the murderer catches up with him and the foul deed is done. There seems to be a fashion at the moment for insisting that books should start with "something exciting". Hence prologues like this. It doesn't add to the story and, possibly because the author doesn't really believe in it, it is one of the least well written and least convincing parts of the whole book. It nearly put me off reading it. If it annoys you, just skip it altogether: it will make no difference whatsoever to your enjoyment of what follows.