LONDON in the 1870s and the city drowns in a winter fog in which 'even the spires of City churches are mere pin pricks in a billowing sea of brown filth'. In a 'house of accommodation' close to St. Pauls, whores wait for custom ('A half sovereign, my dear sir. No more than an hour.') and murder is done. Investigation conducted by Inspector Decimus Webb, newly promoted to the Detective Branch at Scotland Yard, where he sits smoking a pipe plugged with the best Latakia while he ponders the criminality of funeral directors and the fate of their clients, dead and alive. A rich and savoury Victorian hotpot with every ingredient choice, hand-picked and done to a turn.
Literary Review, April 2005
Victorian London can be such an evocative place, having captured the imaginations of countless crime writers in a whirlpool of intrigue and social upheaval. To Conan Doyle, Anne Perry, Andrew Martin and many others past and present we must now add Lee Jackson who, with this third novel (and the second to feature Inspector Decimus Webb, newly promoted to Scotland Yard), makes this historical patch his very own. A killer is at large, choosing his victims among disreputable dance halls and houses of ill-repute, but assorted clues point to him coming from a more rarefied stratum of society, and Webb must find hard evidence for his connection before the assassin kills again. Moving from dark alleys and gaslit streets through a city in flux, the doughty cop proves a resourceful and well-delineated character. Simple entertainment done to a tee.
The Guardian, May 14th 2005
'Two prostitutes murdered in their knocking-shop beds.' 'Pretty young thing
loses life in casino of dubious repute.' 'Greek lowlife found floating face-down
in canal.' 'Cadaver stolen from Abney Park cemetery.'
Not, in fact, headlines from this week's Hackney Gazette, but the latest case for Inspector Decimus Webb, a sort of bumbling Sherlock Holmes figure as he makes his horse-drawn way between the slums and semis of 1870s London. But rather than the characters which include a full complement of less than gentle gents, worrying women, simple servantfolk and naughty ne'er do wells — it is scenery and setting that Jackson renders most fully. Unsurprisingly for an author who also runs his own Victorian London website, some of the fastidious details is, well, a tad too fastidious. While it is perhaps unnecessary to name every street turned in and out of on every hansom carriage trip to Clissold Park or the Criterion, Jackson does succeed in building a city that is believably of its time yet recognisably our own fair capital.
And just as the backdrop stands up to scrutiny, so does the plot: it is robust and raced through in a present tense that leaves little time for pauses of thought or mullings-over. The highly stylised dialogue — all 'indeed's, 'moreover's and 'good day, sir's—should grate but is maintained with brio. So much so that 300 pages in, exchanges such as 'You had carnal knowledge of her?' 'Well I rather suppose I did — a fellow doesn't pay good I money for nothing' almost fail to raise an eyebrow. Almost.
Time Out, June 1-8, 2005