Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
If you are the captain of a ship in trouble how do you show your distress?
You signal by flying your ensign upside down – that's fine if your ship is American, everyone can recognise the Stars and Stripes the wrong way up; the width of the crosses makes it more difficult to identify an inverted Union flag, though it is done; but if you are French you might as well give up hope, because the Tricolour looks the same both ways. A decade after his troubled The American Boy (2003), Andrew Taylor now gives us his The Silent Boy, a boy who has seen horrors in the French revolution and fears worse on his return to Britain. Searching for the troubled child Edward Savill will meet many false flags before the waters settle.
Edward Savill is a man who has lost face, place and wife. A government agent used ten years before against the American secessionists, work which of course failed, Savill has now lost his wife, who left him for a foreigner, who took her to the continent, where she bore a bastard child. One lover, though, was not enough, she was living under the protection of a French count when she suffered her dreadful fate, while Monsieur escaped to England with the boy. Savill recalled to duty by his former chief, who is also the woman's uncle, is sent into the West Country to try to retrieve the child. Things are bleak.
Meanwhile, those caring for the boy wonder what is happening in his head. Is he voluntarily mute? Has his understanding been deranged irrecoverably by his experience? If he has secrets can they be recovered? These are the 1790s, the age of reason – a doctor thinks that logic can conquer most things and believes that the boy has understanding. What more comprehensible line of treatment could there be than to hurt the child, for do not all rational creatures wish to avoid pain, until he speaks?
The first half of the book is drawn out, setting the scene. Then early one morning the boy, Charles, disappears, at just about the time a stranger has been spied on the edge of the estate. Savill produces his warrant and invokes his powers on the local magistrate, but they can do little more than follow the strangers back to London. It is in London that events develop James Bond-style: breaking-and-entering, mysterious cabs driving by, doors left open to overhear what is being said, knives used, pistols fired. Or to put it another way: double-crossing, triple-crossing, returns from the dead, simpletons more trusting than they should have been. So while the first half of the book moves slowly, the increase in action is a near-logarithmic increase. It also means that author, Andrew Taylor, has been playing with us, as his villains play with Edward Savill, because the early emphasis on Charles in his bedroom makes special mention of the ash tree that beats at his window, and anyone who knows their M. R. James knows what becomes of children with strange guardians with trees at their window: why, you might think that Taylor might use part of an earlier title to describe events, “Bleeding Heart” perhaps. Yet that is not the way things go at all – we have been misled and are rewarded with adventure. You will, though, need to defer your satisfaction and read on if you are to reach the end with colours flying.