Wednesday, August 13, 2008
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
I like historical fiction, and I like a good mystery; the late Bruce Alexander (the pen name of Bruce Cook) combined the two genres in a remarkable series of novels featuring the formidable 18th century London magistrate, Sir John Fielding.
As a young man of 19 serving with the Royal Navy, Sir John had been blinded in an accident. Nonetheless, he subsequently went into business on his own, and "read" law with his half brother, Henry Fielding, the famous novelist and magistrate. Together they formed the Bow Street Runners, London’s first organized police force. When Henry had to retire in 1754 as chief magistrate due to ill health, he was succeeded by Sir John, who held the office until his death in 1780.
The novels (the first in the series is Blind Justice) are marvelously evocative of the time and place, and feature a host of fascinating characters, running the gamut from judges, lords and prelates to pirates, cutpurses and prostitutes (both practicing and retired). In addition to Justice Fielding, one encounters other historical figures, including Samuel Johnson, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, and even Benjamin Franklin. Part of the great charm of the series is that the books are presented in the form of the memoirs of Jeremy Proctor, who as a boy of 13, is saved from the streets by Sir John and taken into his household (eventually he, too, decides to study the law). Jeremy is an exceptionally bright lad who winds up providing valuable assistance to Sir John in the latter’s effort to solve the crimes that form the nucleus of each volume, and their interaction and gradual development of a “father-son” relationship is one of the most delightful things about the series.
Sadly, Bruce Alexander died in 2003; but he left a unique legacy in the Sir John Fielding Mysteries, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.