Tuesday, August 14, 2012
From the shelves of the Paco Library
Before there was a Scotland Yard, London had its night watchmen, mounted patrols and the famous Bow Street runners. Ian Dennis and S. Thomas Russell – under the pen name T.F. Banks – created a memorable fictional runner in the person of Henry Morton, the hero of the two novels that Dennis and Russell published together in 2001 (The Thief Taker) and 2003 (The Emperor’s Assassin). Unfortunately, there are only two books in what I imagine was probably originally envisioned as a longer series (I’m not sure why there are only two, although I do know that Russell went on eventually to create a first-rate series of novels set in the age of fighting sail - the first of which I reviewed here).
In The Thief Taker, we are introduced to Henry Morton, a man of integrity and intelligence who is committed to fighting crime – unlike some of his colleagues, one of whom (George Vaughan) is deeply enmeshed in the shadier side of thief-taking (e,g., entrapping the dimmer sort of housebreakers by tipping them off to promising targets, then arranging to have them arrested).
The initial crime that sets the plot in motion is the arrival of a young nobleman at a party in a coach. The passenger is quite dead, and although a doctor declares that the man has died from choking on his own vomit as a result of an excess of drink, Morton, who is called to the scene, picks up various clues that the doctor has missed, and concludes that the victim has been poisoned. His investigation, in which he is occasionally assisted by his mistress, the beautiful actress, Arabella Malibrant, leads him into the seamiest parts of London, and opens up inquiries into a network of criminal enterprises which includes, among its most heinous assets, a brothel in which the services are provided by female children. As Morton, who has also been tasked with recovering some stolen Elgin marble figures, begins to narrow down the suspects in the murder case, he, himself, winds up as the subject of an investigation, when some of the missing artwork turns up in his own flat – where he is arrested by none other than the unscrupulous Vaughan. Faced now with the prospect of being tried for his life for a theft he didn’t commit, Morton, with the help of a young constable, escapes and returns to the brothel, where, with the help of a particularly precocious young girl, he assembles evidence and arranges for testimony that will determine whether he breaks the criminal syndicate or swings on a false charge.
The book is filled with rich period detail and a host of interesting characters, and brings to life many of the prominent features of the precarious system of justice that existed before the modernization of law enforcement in England. A superb combination of mystery and historical fiction, The Thief Taker is highly recommended.