THE DETECTIVE BRANCH
Weidenfeld & Nicholson £18.99
Released: February 11th 2010Reviewer: Robin Jarossi
Robin Jarossi’s short thriller story, Taking Fists for Hadley, appears in The Twelve Days anthology, published by Bridge House Publishing. See jarossi.com
The most beastly character in The Detective Branch (and there are a few) is George Culpepper. As a child he slept in a coal cellar with wild dogs and caught rats with his bare hands, and as an adult he is suspected of hacking off a man’s head and putting it on a pole.
Now when he says to the book’s hero, Pyke, ‘I remember you… you were a vicious little bastard,’ you can guess that Pyke is no choirboy and the Victorian world depicted here is not one of drawing-room manners and delicate matchmaking.
Prostitutes, footpads, sharpers, magsmen, rushers, screevers, cracksmen and a whole forgotten lexicon of villains fill its fetid, warren-like London slums, circa 1840. Detective Inspector Pyke is head of the recently formed Detective Branch at Great Scotland Yard and his investigations take the reader into places unimagined by Charlotte Bronte.
This is author Andrew Pepper’s fourth Pyke novel (following The Last Days of Newgate ‘The Revenge of Captain Paine an ‘Kill-devil and Water) and his formula is winning fans for two reasons.
The first is Pyke himself, whom Pepper – Dr Pepper to his English students at Queen’s University, Belfast – portrays as a complex hero with contradictions that make him believable. The second is the historical texture he conjures – the dripping washing in the street, the wet sawdust and oyster shells on the floor of a Smithfield pub, the gaslight, the hawkers and costermongers.
It’s a time when a man like Pyke can ask that a unidentified murder victim is left on display in the upstairs room of a pub in case any of the patrons recognise the corpse.
Also, by extension, there is the historical fascination of a world in which police detection is in its infancy, before fingerprints and blood-group identification, when police mistakes and miscarriages of justice are common.
Pyke is engrossing because he is the rough-hewn product of this chaotic, brutal metropolis. He is a former Bow Street runner from the notorious Rookery, the vast slum bordered by Soho, Covent Garden and Bloomsbury. He will beat and maim anyone who crosses him, is happy to accept money from gang leader Ned Villums to apprehend a criminal rival, and has even bought his Islington house with gold bars that he lifted while investigating a crime.
Yet he realises some law enforcement is necessary to stop societal breakdown. He is called into action in The Detective Branc’ when three men are shot to death in a pawnbroker’s. That the shots were heard being fired in quick succession lead Pyke to suspect that the killer probably had one of those new-fangled revolvers imported from the USA.
The plot then spirals into a dauntingly complex web of church corruption, infanticide, further murders, property scams and devil-worship.
All this while Pyke has to cope with a strained relationship with son Felix, the failing health of his beloved guardian-uncle Godfrey (who we learn here rescued Pyke from a vile orphanage 36 years before), and with machinations from senior officers and the surly reticence of his juniors.
Pepper plotted this story carefully before writing it and resolves the imbroglio at the end, but if anything it is at times too rich a mix of oblique mysteries and grotesque villains (Ebenezer Druett is chilling and gets a lot of space, but is peripheral to the core conspiracy).
It is Pyke who lingers with the reader. For all his vengeance and anger, he is a vulnerable widower trying to get the right outcome – even if he has to break bones along the way.
Moreover, the author, who cites as inspiration historical non-fiction such as Sarah Wise’s award-winning ‘The Italian Boy’, the true story of murder and grave-robbing in 1830s London, does a fine job of transporting us to Pyke’s world.Many will want to delve into the history books themselves after reading this, while waiting for Pyke’s next outing.
|Page By Gary Cane [Contact]|
|Webmaster: Tony 'Grog' Roberts [Contact]|