I received an early ARC copy of this novel and I freely chose to review it.
I recently read, enjoyed, and reviewed the first novel in this series, The Head in the Ice, and was aware the second novel was on its way, and made sure to read it as soon as I was able to. And, let me tell you, it doesn’t disappoint. If anything, I’d say I enjoyed it even more than the first instalment (and that is saying something).
The story is told from an omniscient point of view (I talked about it at length in my previous review, so I won’t repeat it here), and that gives the reader a chance to see things from different characters’ perspectives, and sometimes experiencing the confusion of their circumstances and the events they are confronted with (we see things from the point of view of one of the victims of the story at some point, and it does make for pretty unnerving reading). Although we mostly share in the point of view of D.I. Bowman, we also read more about Graves, one of the younger detectives working for him and the most sympathetic to Bowman’s circumstances, and that helps us not get completely sucked in by Bowman’s subjective experiences. I know some readers don’t feel comfortable with the changes in perspective implied by this point of view, but I again feel it fits the story well, and I’d advise checking a sample of the book in case of doubt.
We meet again some of the same characters from the previous novel, and the events follow chronologically on from the previous ones, to the point where Bowman gets moved onto a security detail because of doubts about his performance and his mental state in the previous case. Bowman is disappointed and tries even harder to get a hold on his flashbacks and on his difficult recovery from the trauma of his wife’s death and from his guilt about it (I’m trying not to give away spoilers). He is not totally successful; he drinks a bit too much and does not always look after his appearance as well as he should, but he manages to keep his wits about him, and the fact that his analytical mind keeps ticking, despite the stress and the grief, evidence his intelligence and suitability for the job. He is also determined, and although he knows his word is doubted because of his mental health issues, he never gives up in his pursuit of the truth.
We also learn more about Graves, who is a pretty jovial and genial character, but we discover he hides depths of feeling not so evident in the first novel. Even Hicks, a man mostly interested in making his employment in the police force as painless an experience as possible, appears less obnoxious and more willing to work as a member of a team, despite his questioning some of the decisions. We meet some other characters, get to know better Bowman’s boss, we meet Callahan, who seems only interest in advancing his career within the ranks of the police, no matter what it takes, and we also come across a host of secondary characters, including plenty of inhabitants of the criminal underworld (and the distinction is far from clear-cut at times). Oh, and I loved the baddy (but I won’t add anything else on that subject).
The novel is atmospheric and conveys extremely well the feeling of the era, without becoming a catalogue full of description of Victorian clothing and wares. We have fascinating historical notes, such as information about the building of Tower Bridge, in London, also of the Thames Tunnel (initially for pedestrian use), the Queen’s steamer, and I particularly enjoyed the insights into the London Docks and how they were used at the time, as they were the point of entry for most of the goods arriving from around the world into London. We see the extremes of poverty and wealth, and how they are hardly separated by a few yards, and the characters themselves reflect upon the social gap between the haves and the have-nots (in fact, a chasm), also noting the level of crime, corruption, and the intermingling of the criminal underworld and the everyday activities of many people. There are workers being injured, protection rackets at work, goods being stolen, kidnappings, illegal betting, drug use… but the legal side of things is hardly blameless, and it is not surprising that the population remain suspicious of the police and of the workings of the justice system. There is much talk in the book of the Empire, Queen Victoria, and certain practices —like the transportation to the colonies as punishment— are highlighted and questioned. Readers can make their own minds up, but it is difficult not to look at it and conclude that such projects have a high cost, and those who pay for it are rarely the ones who end up reaping the benefits.
The mystery part of the novel is extremely well constructed, and as I advised in the first novel, here it is necessary as well to keep one’s eyes open, and not miss anything, as there are clues dropped along the book, and none of them are casual. There are red-herrings, some of the characters are led down wrong lines of enquiry (it is all to do with the Fenian Brotherhood [the pro-Ireland Independence movement of the era]?, is it all part of a protection ring?, who is the Kaiser?), and Bowman’s mind starts seeing connections between what is happening and his own tragedy, but, are they real? The novel alternates scenes of action with those of observation and enquiry, but the rhythm increases as the story progresses and towards the end, the action scenes come fast and thick, and we can hardly turn the pages quickly enough to keep up. I enjoyed the ending, even if it is not what I’d call a “happy” one per se, but it fits perfectly well with the story, it shows Bowman in a very good light, and it answers many questions, not all pertaining exclusively to this book.
This is another great Victorian mystery novel, with solid and complex characters, which poses questions about the society of the time and also about the nature of the British Empire. I look forward to reading more adventures of Bowman and his team in the future.