aka Ian Dennis and Sean Russell
Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner
The Thief Taker (2001)
I was browsing Sean Russell’s web page, when I saw two books listed that I didn’t own: The Thief Taker and The Emperor’s Assassin. My immediate reaction was one of shock: Sean Russell had co-written a series books? And those books were Victorian mysteries? Why on earth didn’t I have these books?!
So I remedied the situation posthaste. Unfortunately, the books arrived in the same order as several other books I'd been waiting to read, and so got set aside--not for too long, however, because this is Sean Russell after all.
Henry Morton is a thief taker for Bow Street, the precursor to Scotland Yard. He is called to the residence of Lord Arthur Darley, but his friend and sometimes mistress, the actress Arabella Malibrant, because a dead young man arrived in a carriage to Lord Arthur's party. A doctor attending the party declares that the young man has choked to death on vomitus (Did I mention that I started reading this book at lunch?) but Henry Morton, who has seen one or two bodies in his time on Bow Street, doesn't accept the diagnosis, and this is pulled into an enquiry of the young man's death.
I love Victorian mysteries. As much as I love modern conveniences and the right to vote and be educated, there is something about the Victorian era that fascinates me, and Victorian mysteries are the most fascinating.
Bow Street and thief takers were precursors to Scotland Yard, and in this book some of the problems with the system of thief takers as opposed to a paid police force are delineated--namely the way that corruption could run out of control, and how the very nature of the job lead to distrust by the very populace they were supposed to protect. (If you aren't familiar with the idea, thief takers were a bit like bounty hunters, in that they were paid when the criminals they arrested were convicted, however, they were also to patrol the streets and keep the peace.)
Henry Morton is a very interesting character. He's an honest thief taker, who takes his job seriously, but he also aims to live the life of a gentleman, although he will never be able to achieve the status of gentleman in London society.
The book, however, is somewhat different from other Victorian mysteries that I have read, in that Henry's relationship with Arabella is clearly a romantic one, yet one outside the bounds to marriage. The fact that she was a widow, as well as an actress, allowed her to live a life different from those of other women of the time, in that she had more freedom, although like Henry, she may have been able to live and dress like a Lady, but she certainly would not have been considered one.
Luckily, the romantic descriptions in the book are mere hugging and kissing, so I will be able to loan this book to my grandmother without worry.
It took me a couple of chapters to get into the flow of the book--I've been reading fantasies that moved very quickly, and Sean Russell writes stories that you should take your time with--or at least not read in a single gulp. This story was slightly faster moving than the Sean Russell books I'm used to, but about on par with what I expect for a Victorian mystery.
I very much enjoyed The Thief Taker, and heartily recommend it to fans of Victorian mysteries. The mystery moves along at a nice page, makes sense when everything is resolved, yet has an unexpected twist at the end.
The Emperor's Assassin (2003)
Although this book was as well written as the previous, I found myself disappointed in the ending. The mystery was perhaps even better than the first book, however, it was a Hollywood ending, with guns a-blazing, shots fired, men dying, near death, etc. I know that these things sometimes happen, but such endings rank rather low on my believability scale.
Which was entirely too bad, since up to that point this was an excellent mystery.
The body of a young woman is found on the rocks, made to look as if in despair, she'd thrown herself to her death. However, Henry and the surgeon have their doubts, and thus Henry finds himself looking into her death, and involved in the deadly game of international politics.
There were several things I absolutely loved about this book. I loved that they explained precisely how they used the woman's clothing to find out her name. I also liked how Arabella was able to help Henry, and how her assistance seemed reasonable--even likely.
Also well done was how Henry and Jimmy split the questioning. Henry with his more refined manner, questioning the lords and ladies, while Jimmy, child of the Cheapside, questioning the servants. I found the way they divided the labor reasonable, not only because of their mannerisms, but also because of their relationship.
I also liked that we had brief glimpses of Lucy--she had a rough enough history, it's good that Arabella continues to look after her, and it's good that she wasn't just discarded as a plot device from the last book, never to be seen again, unless the plot requires it.
Henry's family was an interesting twist as well. We met his mother in the last book. Now he is introduced to his half-sister, a woman who seems to been, in many ways, similar to Henry. If the series continues, I will be interested to see how their relationship develops.
And I want to note that although there were blazing guns, at least the pistols were realistic for the time, including their temperamental nature and frequency of misfiring.
So, other than the Hollywood ending, this was another excellent book. If you have not read the first book you should be able to begin here without much confusion, although as always, in a series it's always better if you know the past history if the characters. I hope that they'll continue with this series, but that they'll skip the action/adventure endings in the future.