Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
This is the story of a venal but fictitious lawyer’s fall from grace interwoven with real events.
In 1860’s London Edwin James QC, MP, is heading for the heights of a legal career: anticipating a knighthood, dreaming of becoming Lord Chancellor. The snag is his propensity for high living, whoring and the defence of scoundrels as unprincipled as himself. Thriving in a corrupt system he overreaches himself and defends a trickster who has defrauded a number of poor Irishmen. He wins the case only to become the target of the fearful Cork Revengers. Already deep in debt he flees both killers and creditor to set up shop in New York, another city teeming with lowlife and lucrative lawsuits.
James takes to the new lifestyle with gusto but his penchant for sailing close to the wind continues, and rumours of his dodgy past have followed him across the Atlantic. He makes enemies, is intimidated, blackmailed and ultimately cajoled into working as a spy for a branch of the establishment, itself treacherous. Now he is caught up in the crucial events of the time: a witness to the murder of President Lincoln and involved in the subsequent hunt for the assassin. He fails to avoid racist riots following the Emancipation Act when Irish immigrants turned on freed slaves but manages to rescue a woman from rape by three thugs: the one courageous act of a dissolute life.
An adroit book without sympathetic characters. James is no anti-hero but a highly clever fox, once vainglorious, reduced to penury and self-pity: an unworthy commentator on a crucial period of American history. If it was the author’s intention to expose the sleaze behind the birth of a great nation he has made his point.