It's London, 1841 & Queen Victoria has just had her first child. The city is bustling with gas & steam powered industry & it's a time of great change.
This is reflected at the Metropolitan Detective Police Force where forensics is in its' infancy. Detective Inspector Owen Endersby began his career as a Bow Street runner, the young coppers who favoured fists over evidence when it came to getting a conviction. He embraces the new scientific methods of "deduction, reliable witnesses & proof". But his latest case is keeping him up nights.
Two identical murders have been committed. In each case, a scarred & grubby man broke into a work house, killed a matron & kidnapped one of the young girls. Both of the children were named Catherine & both were left just outside the gates.
Endersby & his trusty sidekick Sgt. Thomas Caldwell employ "modern" techniques, don disguises & enlist the help of scam artists & pickpockets in an effort to nab their man. But they're just a little too successful. Despite the culprit's distinctive appearance, they soon have an embarrassment of suspects.
Meanwhile, in a small village outside the city, a sickly woman begins to write a confession of her sins. She was once a work house matron, known for never sparing the rod. Her story & those of each of the suspects are interspersed with the current murder investigation. As the book progresses, the author pulls them all together as Endersby gradually weeds through the red herrings to solve the case.
This victorian police procedural is a quick, atmospheric read. The author describes the teeming streets, dark alleys & desperate living conditions of the poor in ways that appeal to all the senses. He's obviously done his homework. Even the smallest details of every day life such as clothing, meals & bathing habits are period perfect. The dialogue consists of the formal address & colloquialisms that are appropriate for the time. I confess I had difficulty understanding much of the conversations between Endersby & his motley street deputies, relying on the characters' actions to help me figure out what was going on.
Characters range from the proper detectives to a colourful slew of Dickens like street urchins, thieves & flesh pedlars. But the book belongs to Endersby, a decent man who is dedicated to his wife, the job, Shakespeare & good cheese (not necessarily in that order). He's a deep thinker, continually pondering the injustice & frailty he sees all around. It overwhelms him at times, tempting him to slip back into the physical aggression of his youth. He refers to this as his "demon familiar". While I enjoyed his internal struggle for control, I did tire of the author's frequent use of this phrase.
This is the second of the series, following "Trumpets Sound No More" which won the 2008 CWC Arthur Ellis Award. It's a meticulously researched victorian murder mystery with an authentic feel for fans of the genre.