Back after a long absence….
This was an impulse pickup from the library. The Victorian detective novel is obviously a genre that seems like a challenge for your first novel, given the gigantic shadow that Sherlock casts over it, and I was curious to see how Thomas would shake things up. If he would add any twists or innovative ideas to the detective/sidekick pairing or the setting, thereby putting his own stamp on the concept.
The mystery is set in Victorian London, and is chiefly concerned with the increasing Jewish population of the city. This has led to conflicts and tensions on both sides as this historically-persecuted group attempt to find a new home where their ways rub the nerves of the solidly Christian majority. When a young Jewish man who looks very similar to the popular image of Jesus is found crucified, a detective with a close relationship to the Jewish community, Cyrus Barker, is called upon to investigate soon after he has hired his new assistant.
Sadly, I found very little of the sort. The protagonist, Thomas Llewelyn, is a down-on-his-luck Welsh lad who has spent time in both Oxford College and prison, and it is this odd history that recommends him as an assistant to Cyrus Barker, a well-known “enquiry agent.” This background doesn’t seem to add anything to Thomas’ identity, and indeed his personality isn’t well fleshed-out, though his backstory is solid. If the book had been about him as an assistant inheriting Barker’s practice, it would have been more interesting, in my mind. Unfortunately, this is not so, and we meet Mr. Barker. His backstory, why he always wears spectacles, and his eccentric methods and staff attempts to create a sense of mystery that falls flat. I understand that Mr. Thomas was attempting to follow the same path as Arthur Conan Doyle in gradually uncovering the character of their detective, but there just isn’t much there there once the story is told.
Barker is as unfailingly omnipotent as Holmes, but he doesn’t seem to have the same flashes of personality, instead depending on quirk to fill in the blanks. He has a vast and already settled network of contacts (and in fact a passage of Doyle’s regarding Moriarty’s spiderweb of influence is paraphrased by Barker) so that we’re along for the ride, but never encounter something or someone new or different without Barker’s presence, so that there’s no sense of discovery. Investigating the mystery itself seems to consist of talking to the chief suspects and little else, and the reveal of the killer, as well as his motive, is pretty anticlimactic. I got the sense that Will Thomas more wanted to display his skill at creating a picture of the time and people who might have existed in it than he did in making an engaging mystery. Indeed, there is an entire chapter dedicated to Llewelyn’s time working in a rabbi’s house over Passover which could easily have been snipped out, given that it did not advance the plot at all.
I will add a caveat here: many of the issues I had with the story can be easily forgiven because of the book’s place as the first of an apparently popular series. Finding your voice as a writer is no easy task (which I well know as someone who hasn’t discovered his own) and Thomas certainly has the skill to keep it going. If you read Some Danger Involved and don’t care for it (as I didn’t) then give the next one a try (as I will). It may grow on you.
As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.