Written by Andrew Taylor – Already a triple winner of the CWA Historical Dagger, Andrew Taylor has been nominated once again for his latest book and must be a strong contender for the 2015 prize, which is presented on 30 June. The Silent Boy, a menacing and powerfully atmospheric novel set during the French Revolution, is further evidence of Taylor’s preeminence in crime’s historical sub-genre.
Despite that hint of a tricolour on the cover, The Silent Boy is largely set in London and the outskirts of Bath in 1792. Several of the novel’s key characters have fled the revolutionary ferment in France, and Taylor’s brief account of the bloody violence and instability in Paris is vivid and shocking – not least because it is seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old child, Charles.
The horror of the events in France has turned Charles mute. It appears he witnessed the death of his mother, Augusta, and word reaches her family in London that she was a victim of the mob. Charles is taken across the channel to Charnwood House as part of a group of émigré refugees including a nobleman, Count de Quillon, who believes he is the boy’s father.
The British government, concerned about war and revolution, does not take kindly to this French contingent, which had been playing politics in Paris in the past few years. When Augusta’s wealthy and powerful uncle, Mr Rampton, decides he would like Charles as his heir, he appoints his late niece’s estranged husband, Edward Savill, to bring the boy back to London. Rampton appears to be a shadowy character whose position in the Post Office makes him some kind of 18th century spymaster, who opens people’s letters in the interests of national security.
Edward, who featured in Taylor’s The Scent of Death, is clearly ambivalent about this commission from his sometime patron. In the eyes of the law, Edward understands that he is the father of Charles (he was still married to Augusta, his estranged wife) and the boy has an older half-sister he has never met. Nevertheless, Edward takes what turns out to be a perilous journey to the country estate, and his mission is complicated upon his arrival by a terrible toothache as well as the bloody-minded and haughty Count de Quillon. With Edward attended to by the sinister Dr Gohlis, Taylor delights in depicting the brutal dentistry of 220 years ago. It’s this portrayal of daily life at which the author excels and it brings his historical novels to life in a vivid and arresting style.
The Silent Boy is also unbearably tense as the traumatised child and his potential rescuer are kept apart. Yet it’s never entirely clear who the enemy is as neither Edward nor Charles are in full possession of the facts. As well as the political machinations, there are additional dangers for Charles including a local bully and, perhaps, Dr Gohlis who has a possibly unhealthy interest in human anatomy. In his laboratory, Charles is drawn to the doctor’s écorché – a moulded sculpture of the body of a small boy with the skin removed. “You will always remember what lies beneath,” Dr Gohlis tells the boy after this creepy lesson.
While many historical novelists can’t resist the urge to show off their learning, Taylor never forgets he is telling a story. As well as plunging you into the past with intoxicating prose, he is a master of slow-burning suspense and complex, contradictory characters. Having a child protagonist who can’t speak is an intriguing narrative restriction that only adds to the tension. As Taylor’s fans already know, he may well be the best historical crime novelist working today.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars