Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Victorian London can be a very effective context for a novel. The physical setting alone can be appealing. And there are all sorts of possibilities for plots and characters. So, it’s little wonder that several series are set in that context. Let’s take a look at one today, and turn the spotlight on Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry, the sixth in his Barker & Llewellyn series.
Cyrus Barker is a private enquiry agent; Thomas Llewellyn is his assistant. One day they get a visit from Inspector Terence Pool of Scotland Yard. He has a very odd sort of commission that he wants to discuss with Barker. It seems that the British government has granted diplomatic immunity to one Sebastian NIghtwine, who’ll soon be returning to London. And Nightwine has expressed concern that he may be in danger from, of all people, Barker.
That’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Barker and Llewellyn have crossed paths with Nightwine before; in fact, it was Barker’s discovery of several of Nightwine’s crimes that drove Nightwine to flee the country in the first place. Now, the British government thinks it needs Nightwine’s help for a secret mission. So, he’s been brought back to London.
Barker strongly suspects that Nightwine has his own agenda, which will probably include revenge. What’s more, Barker has no illusions that Nightwine has reformed, so he’s convinced that there’s a criminal plot, too – one that the British government has not discovered. Forbidden by police to go anywhere near his quarry, Barker has to be creative in finding out Nightwine’s real motives. But once he does, he sees that there is real danger if Nightwine isn’t stopped.
Then there’s a murder, for which Barker is neatly framed. Now, Barker and Llewellyn are on the run from the police, who are not without resources. Every officer in London is on the lookout for them, and all of Barker’s funds are cut off. This leaves Nighwine free to carry out his plot. So, without money or access to ‘the usual channels,’ Barker and Llewellyn have to solve the murder, clear Barker’s name, and thwart Nightwine’s plans. To do that, they’re going to have to use all of their skills.
As I mentioned, this novel takes place in London, and Thomas clearly places the reader there. From Trafalgar and Leicester Squares, to the docks, to the slums, readers follow along as Barker and Llewellyn follow leads, go into and out of hiding, and so on. And it’s the London of 1886. So, readers who are also familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle may find some of the lifestyle described in this book to be familiar.
But if you’re thinking that this sounds a lot like a Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson case, it really isn’t. Barker and Llewellyn are a quite different pairing. And the differences go beyond the fact that Holmes and Watson are more or less friends and colleagues, while Llewellyn is Barker’s employee.
For one thing, in most of the Holmes/Watson stories, Watson quite admires his friend. He seldom has a word of criticism for Holmes, although it’s clear in the stories that Holmes isn’t perfect. That’s not the case with Barker and Llewellyn. Llewellyn respects his boss’ intelligence and ability to solve crimes. But he’s hardly blind to Barker’s imperfections, and he certainly doesn’t hero-worship the man. In this scene, for instance, Barker asks Llewellyn to get a list of passengers who will be on the same ship to London as Nightwine:
‘‘What are you planning to do with the information?’ [Llewellyn]
‘I intend to board the Rangoon, of course. What odd ideas you get into your head sometimes.’
‘But he warned you off…’
‘Legally, I have the right to enter the vessel, so long as I do not molest Nightwine in any way or keep Poole and his men from performing their duties. My defense will be iron-clad if I can find someone aboard ship with whom I am acquainted and who will vouch for my attendance there.’
‘Hence the passenger list.’
‘Ah, light breaketh.’
I sighed. One does that a lot when working for Barker.’
Llewellyn respects Barker, and he’s glad for the job. But to him, Barker is all too human.
The snippet above also hints at another element in this novel: the wit. One the one hand, this isn’t a ‘jolly romp’ sort of mystery. On the other, there are funny comments and moments woven through it. For instance, in this scene, Barker and Llewellyn arrive at the dock when the ship carrying Nightwine arrives. Poole spots them:
‘Poole wagged a finger in his [Barker’s] face. He was one of the five people I knew brave enough to get away with it. I was not one of those people.
‘You’re up to something.’ [Poole]
‘Of course I’m up to something. I’m a private enquiry agent. We live by our wits.’’
As I mentioned, this isn’t a comic caper sort of novel. But it definitely has funny moments.
It’s also worth noting that, in this series, the police are presented in a more positive way than they often are in the Conan Doyle stories. Barker does say some disparaging things about them, but it’s not a story full of bumbling coppers. And, when he and Llewellyn go on the run, he’s well aware that the police are a force to be reckoned with.
The mystery itself – Nightwine’s plan, the murder, and the frame-up of Barker – is solved, and we learn what’s behind everything. We also, by the way, learn some things about Barker’s backstory. But I can say without spoiling the novel that this isn’t one of those cases where the guilty party is led away in handcuffs. There are some gritty scenes and moments, too. So, you couldn’t really call this a light, cosy sort of story. That said, though, the violence is not extended nor unusually brutal.
Fatal Enquiry gives readers a look at life in late-Victorian London. It weaves the story of the animus between Nightwine and Barker into the crime plot, and features two enquiry agents whose working relationship forms an important part of the story. But what’s your view? Have you read Fatal Enquiry? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 29 May/Tuesday, 30 May – Never Buried – Edie Clair
Monday, 5 June/Tuesday, 6 June – You – Zoran Drvenkar
Monday, 12 June/Tuesday, 13 June – Red Ink – Angela Makholwa