Lawless and The Devil of Euston Square

August 12, 2013

London, 1859. Novice detective, Campbell Lawless, stumbles onto the trail of Berwick Skelton, an elusive revolutionary, threatening to bring the city to its knees with devilish acts of terror.

Thrust into a lethal, intoxicating world of sabotage and royal scandal – and aided by a gang of street urchins and a vivacious librarian – Lawless sets out to capture his underworld nemesis before he unleashes his final vengeance.

Murder. Vice. Pollution. Delays on the Tube. Some things never change…

I’ve discovered over the last couple of years that I really enjoy historical crime fiction. Taking the staples of a good mystery and adding the extra wrinkle of a different time period can really breathe new life into the genre. Authors like Sarah Pinborough and Lynn Shepherd have produced novels that are hugely entertaining, marvellously evocative and a pleasure to read. William Sutton’s debut, set in Victorian England, treads similar ground. The big question is though, does it deliver?

Things get off to a good start, Sutton’s writing vividly brings the hustle and bustle of Victorian London to life. The capital is still caught in the vast changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. You can sense the frenetic energy of the city. Everyone has a purpose, the good news from the reader’s perspective is that in some cases that purpose is utterly nefarious.

The politics and imperialism of the age play an important role in the plot. This was a time when the sun never set on the British Empire. There were very distinct class boundaries and Sutton weaves the social issues of the day into his narrative. The crippling poverty of the underclasses and the rampant expansionism of the industrial elite are explored.

Lawless meets people from every strata of society, from royalty to the inmates of the local asylum. In a nice touch, that adds an air of authenticity to proceedings, famous faces of the time also drift in an out of the story. Certain scenes are like a veritable who’s who of the mid nineteenth century. I’ll not spoil anything by mentioning who appears, you can discover that for yourself.

The novice detective is very much the rookie when we first meet him. He has good instincts, but doesn’t always trust them. It’s always refreshing to discover a protagonist beset with doubts, it gives things a nice realistic tone.  It also bodes well for the future. There is room for the character to develop and grow.

Chief Inspector Wardle is the close-lipped mentor that Lawless finds at Scotland Yard. Perhaps not quite the inspirational leader that the young policeman was hoping for Wardle still manages to impart his wisdom in his own unique way. The relationship between student and teacher is a highlight as it evolves. Lawless initially flounders around, trying to second guess what his boss expects of him, but as the case progresses he grows in confidence.

I love the language used in this novel. Lawless is from Edinburgh and his Scottish twang is pitch perfect (I’ll even go so far as to say that even though he is from the east coast, and I hail from the west, I warmed to the character). The language of the streets is also an important aspect of Lawless’ first investigation. The Worms, a street gang not unlike Conan-Doyle’s Baker Street Irregulars, have a patois all of their own. It’s almost as though you’re getting a mini-mystery every time one of them opens their mouth. There is a character called the Professor who I particularly liked. Personally I’ve always been a fan of the Victorian era, at an impressionable age I discovered George MacDonald Fraser and his disreputable anti-hero Flashman and I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve always marvelled a bit at the pomp and ceremony of this particular time period. I just love the way people talk to one another, terribly proper and all that. Phrases like “old cove” are a delight.

It’s interesting to note that the problems that Lawless faces during the process of his investigations aren’t massively different from the issues that still effect large cities now. Gangs, blackmail and political corruption aren’t a new invention and in addition to this the 19th century also had plenty of gruesome crimes all of it’s own.

Can I make a suggestion? Those of you who enjoy a bit of music while you’re reading may wish to consider the Sherlock Holmes soundtrack by Hans Zimmer while reading this novel. It’s the perfect accompaniment. Discombobulate indeed!

Lawless and The Devil of Euston Square is published by Exhibit A Books and is available now. This is a fun, energetic debut and a quick check of the author’s website promises another two enigmatically monickered novels – Lawless and the Flowers of Sin, Lawless and the Maestro of Assassins. You can definitely count me in for both, by jove.

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