By Peter Lovesey
Allison & Busby - March 2000
ISBN: 0749004479 - Paperback
Mystery / Historical
Reviewed by: Rachel Hyde, MyShelf.Com
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Since Ellis Peters re-created the hitherto largely ignored sub-genre of historical detective fiction it is easy to spot patterns in the genre and name leaders and followers. Therefore it is very interesting to have a look at what this type of fiction was like prior to Peters and Umberto Eco. This is a reprint of one of Lovesey’s Victorian whodunits, originally published in 1972. These novels went on to become classics of the genre and have won awards, been translated into many languages and even been televised. The scene is set immediately as the Pinkus sisters’ trapeze act has gone wrong and they are blaming each other for it. But this is no isolate incident for at music halls all over London similar things are happening as performers suffer accidents and are ridiculed in front of their audiences. Surely it will be nearly impossible for them to find work now – or is there something strange afoot? Enter cynical Sergeant Cribb and dogged Constable Thackeray who find themselves too late to stop a murder but not too late to catch the murderer.
The first thing I noticed about this novel was how adept Lovesey is at setting the stage for his drama and conveying an atmosphere in a few well-chosen words. The reader is transported to the tawdry world of the music hall where prostitutes promenade for custom, rubbing shoulders with clerks on the razzle and members of the aristocracy, and the ground underfoot is crunchy with discarded nutshells. It is a world of glitter and illusion but only a step away from the workhouse. Lovesey’s story combines an air of studied realism with a wonderfully understated humor and an eye and ear for the absurd. We meet the consulting private detective with his brass doorplate, chemical apparatus and shelves of old books, the smugly sonorous Newgate jailer and the prudish and unimaginative Thackeray who is the despair of the Educational Inspector when he spells “minor offence” as “miner a fence”. It all adds up to a deliciously plotted, populated and paced novel.
The story is entertaining but the way the seamy side of Victorian London was brought to life is far more so. A fascinating glimpse into a well-known aspect of Victorian life and beautifully delineated – long overdue for reprinting.