Written by MJ Trow –– 14 April, 1865. Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC. As the packed house laughs and cheers its way through Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin, a shot rings out and gunsmoke drifts into the gas-lit spotlights. A very special theatre-goer, none other than Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States of America, lies in the arms of his wife, stricken by an assassin’s bullet. In the audience is Captain Matthew Grand, a young cavalry officer in the victorious Union army. As James Wilkes Booth leaps from the dying president’s box to make his escape, he is pursued by Grand into an alley outside the theatre. This was no spur-of-the-moment attack, however, and Booth has an accomplice waiting with a horse. Once the assassin is safely away, the co-conspirator knocks Grand senseless.
Meanwhile, nearly 4,000 miles away James Batchelor, a London reporter, stumbles – literally – onto the body of a dead prostitute. She has been horribly murdered near the notorious Haymarket Theatre – as well known for being the haunt of ladies of the night as for anything which happens on stage. Batchelor is arrested by an over-zealous constable, but when interviewed by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Tanner, he is able to convince the police that he was merely an innocent bystander. His bad luck doesn’t improve, because he is subsequently fired by his editor. He decides he must track down the Haymarket Strangler in order to write the story which will restore his journalistic fortunes.
Back in Washington, Grand has also been arrested, but the special police have other things in mind for him than lumping him alongside the conspirators. It is believed that one of their number has evaded detection by escaping to England. Grand is given the task of traveling there to track him down. Via a number of coincidences – which rather stretch credibility – Grand finds himself teamed up with Batchelor, and the combination of the reporter’s knowledge of London and the American’s money, energy and physical presence is one that gets results. The pair seem to be searching for two separate people, one a man who garottes prostitutes, and the other who played his part in the killing of a world leader, but what if they are connected? As they stumble through a Victorian London redolent of horse manure, coal fires and tobacco smoke, the soldier and the hack are faced with a few surprises on their way to the answer.
There is certainly a neat symmetry to how we are introduced to Grand and Batchelor. A theatre, a violent death and a mistaken arrest are mutually mirrored. The quest on which Grand is sent to London – thus crossing paths with Batchelor – is contrived, to say the least, but the story is entertaining enough once they join forces.
MJ Trow is a prolific author. He has two major series to his name – the books featuring Conan Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade, and the adventures of Peter ‘Mad Max’ Maxwell, a history teacher who also solves crimes. He has recently begun a third series written around the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, and we reviewed one of those – Crimson Rose – back in December 2013. Trow injects a good deal of sardonic wit and wordplay into all his books. If, like me, you are one of his long-standing readers you’ll have learned go along with his jokey style, perhaps without being totally won over by it. This apart, he is one of our finest writers and you will look in vain to find a more accomplished re-creator of historical settings.
Creme de la Crime
CFL Rating: 4 Stars