When a series of bizarre murders occur in London’s notorious East End, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Philemon Raft is called on to solve the crimes, but even he is powerless to explain why the victims are displayed in public places — or why the killer insists on drilling burr holes in their skulls. With little to go on except the strange red dust found on the victims’ palms, Raft must scour the city looking for an explanation. Aided only by his newly-appointed constable Freddie Crook, Raft’s investigation takes him into London’s most dark and dangerous places, where human predators wait to devour and destroy.
But Raft has an even bigger problem: a casual acquaintance is blackmailing him, and what she knows about his secrets could tear Raft’s life to pieces
Review by Erastes
This is a grown up murder mystery. Don’t go into without an ability to read unpleasantness. This is Victorian London in all its gothic nastiness where life is extremely cheap and grotesque is the name of the game. In fact grotesque would be a good sub-genre for this, but that’s not an insult. This faces the dark, dingy and seedy London of the 1880’s head on and finds it covered it gore. If you liked The Alienist this will be right up your dark , cobbled street.
I’ve read JS Cook before and I know her from the internet. She is, although some of you will find this hard to countenance, even more obsessed with total accuracy than I am. She’s a perfectly nice looking woman who you would not think capable of experimenting with “Kensington gore” and fake paper mache skulls to see how brain and blood might spatter across a wall. She’s Dexter, but without the irritating habit of wrapping people in clingfilm. She takes her crime extremely seriously, and that echoes beautifully in her creation of Inspector Philemon Raft.
He’s a dour obsessive with a keen eye for observation. But he’s no idiot savant or genius and good job too. He can’t look at flowerbed and know that a drunk sailor stood there before travelling to Tahiti. What he finds out he finds out either by hard graft, sending someone else to do hard graft or by outside information. In this I found him to be extremely believable because even today most of police successes are based on outsider information. He’s ably assisted by the lovely Constable Freddie Crook who is not all he seems, and a lot more besides.
I found Raft a little uneven. I like detectives to have quirks–Poirot had OCD (must have had, surely!), Holmes took coke, and so on,and in that vein, Raft seems a little unhinged when he’s deep in thought, and I liked this rather frenetic side of him, but this device wasn’t regular enough to be a quirk. He’s also mildly clairvoyant, and I haven’t let this aspect of him preclude this book from review–because he may simply be hallucinating–or it could be his subconscious helping his detetcting. It’s good that this is not fully explored because he pushes it down and that works well.
I absolutely loved the Dickensian feel when it comes to the names. They were lush and rolled around the mouth like honey. Featherstonehaugh, Breedlove, Butter and so on. In fact it’s wrong to say “Dickensian” because Cook has her own style, her own voice and although there are tones picked up from others it comes over as entirely hers.
It needed a really tough and experienced edit, though. Not for typographical reasons but because one or two facts contradict themselves and that’s a shame and spoils an otherwise good effort. For example there’s a point where a thumb injury is pertinent to the plot and the first time Raft sees it he recognises what caused it because he’s seen something very similar before. BUT later in the story it’s said “Raft had never seen anything like it.” There are a couple of these continuity problems which probably wouldn’t matter in any other genre but did in this–it just made Raft seem rather stupid, and he’s certainly not that.
Where Cook really excels (aside from her medical knowledge) is her immersive description. Every scene is 3 dimensional–from the feel of the cobbles on the street, to a musty coat on a hook, to the smell of rotting flesh to the sounds of carriages passing by the window. It’s fantastically real and very addictive.
The story itself is deep, twisty, plotty and at times you feel that all the threads are going in different directions. It’s not the sort of cosy mystery that you’ll like if you want your detective to be following one lead which leads to another. It’s more like the time of TV drama where the detective is bombarded with conflicting and confusing theories and characters and information–and none of it seems to tie up. So you need to concentrate with this book, you can’t coast and let the author hand feed you the clues.
Yes, there is a gay plotline, but it’s not at all the main theme of the book. The crime’s the thing–and Raft and Crook will have to work out their relationship in the midst of another gruesome set of circumstances, which they will in “Rag and Bone” which I’ll be reviewing later.
Overall, I highly recommend this if you are lover of gritty detective fiction. It gets a very solid four from me and I look forward to more of Philemon Raft.