Barker & Llewelyn
Some Danger Involved (2004)
Thomas Llewelyn is at the end of his rope. He’s spent time in prison, his wife is dead, and he cannot find a job–all but a death sentence in Victorian London. So he eventually applies for the position as assistant to the private inquiry agent Cyrus Barker. After only a few days as Barker’s assistant they take on a case involving the murder of a Jewish man that may be the start of a pogrom against the Jews in London.
I was quickly drawn into the story, and was curious about not just the murder, but Thomas’ past, as well as the history of his employer, Barker. The strength of the book was both the story and the ambiance, with the history of the Jews in London in Victorian London serving as a fascinating backdrop.
It wasn’t a perfect story, however. There were a couple things that nagged at me through the story. One turned out to be a plot point that I was right to question. The other I’m still not certain about, but as this is the start of the series, perhaps my questions will be addressed in further books.
Additionally, I found the dialog jarring at times. It wasn’t the language per se, as much as I had a hard time reconciling Barker’s position in society and the way he spoke to those around him, including Thomas. It just felt a bit off kilter.
However, it was only a small thing, and didn’t ruin the book in any manner, it was just a small distraction from what was otherwise a good tale.
To Kingdom Come (2005)
The sequel to Some Danger Involved find Barker and Llewelyn involved in a case involving the IRB. Fearing that Scotland Yard and the Home Office will be unable to solve the problem, Barker proposes that he and Llewelyn go undercover and attempt to help bring catch the criminals.
The book starts with Thomas Llewelyn plunging into the Thames, and then, when we’re not sure if he’ll survive the plunge, shifts to the past and the events that led to his fall.
A couple of things about this book. I particularly liked how Barker and Llewelyn prepare to infiltrate the group–what they do seems a very reasonable way to achieve their goals. Llewelyn’s training leads you to see how Barker could have gained his varied expertise, and how Llwewlyn quickly have a very broad range of knowledge that will be useful as an enquiry agent.
I also liked how, although Barker is seemingly in complete control over himself, Llewelyn is still learning, and you can see how his youth and inexperience will cause him problems–and I also like how Barker knows and actually uses Llewelyn’s naivete.
One thing initially annoyed me while reading the story:
SPOILER (rot 13)
Dhvgr dhvpxyl V svtherq bhg gung Znevr jnf gur oenvaf oruvaq gur bcrengvba, naq vg sehfgengrq zr gung Yyjrjyla jnf fb qrafr.
Hcba shegure gubhtug, ubjrire, V ernyvmrq gung Onexre nyfb dhvpxyl svtherq guvf bhg, naq uvf jneavatf gb Gubznf jrer gb xrrc uvz sebz ybfvat uvf urneg gb n jbzna jub qvqa’g pner sbe uvz, naq jnf hfvat uvz sbe uvf fhccbfrq rkcregvfr.
Gung znqr frafr. Gubznf’ nggvghqr gbjneqf jbzra vf gung gur snve frk vf nyfb gur jrnxre frk naq arrqf gb or cebgrpgrq. Fb ur jnf hanoyr gb pbaprvir gung Znevr jbhyq or nalguvat zber guna gur ubhfrxrrcre sbe ure oebgure.
Naq guvf gbb vf cneg bs Yyrjryla’f yrffbaf gb znxr uvz n orggre radhvel ntrag, rira vs vg oernxf uvf urneg va gur cebprff.
Since that had been my only real problem with the book, realizing it was purposeful brought my opinion of the book back up.
The one thing I wish could have been differently is the treatment of the Irish in London: Thomas sees a brief glimpse of the way the Irish were treated, but it’s only a brief look, and it doesn’t seem to phase Thomas very much. Essentially, the Irish did have legitimate gripes, but they were quite obviously going about things the wrong way.
Perhaps the author didn’t want to rub our noses in it, and the single incident was enough for the reader to see the issue even if Thomas didn’t necessarily see the injustice. But it seems as if they would have run into the prejudice more than once.
Regardless, it’s a good story and I particularly liked Llewelyn’s education with van Rhys. If you have not read Some Danger Involved, you should still be able to read To Kingdom Come with no difficulty.
The Limehouse Text (2006)
The book starts with Barker getting ready for a fight–a fight that is entirely Llewelyn’s fault. As with the last book, we then go back to see how Llewelyn got himself (and Barker) into that fix. (Everything isn’t Llwelyn’s fault, they are investigating the death of his predecessor, Quong, but part of the mess can be laid entirely at Llwelyn’s doorstop.)
The first book introduced Llewelyn to the Jewish quarter of London. The second book involved them with the Irish, and this book involves them with the Chinese immigrants of the city. Considering Barker’s past, it’s almost a surprise it took them this long to becomes involved in a case in that quarter.
We also learn more bits and pieces of Barker’s past, and some of those with him he associates. Of course learning some of that past is what gets Llewelyn into trouble.
Couple things bothered me about the story. First, I find it unlikely that with his wariness about fighting women, Llewelyn would have bested the Chinese girl in the hallway. Especially if she was as well trained as she was supposed to be. Second, I’m not quite sure how things got so out of Barker’s control regarding Llewelyn’s training. Perhaps I just misread it, but you’d think Barker would have done a better job letter Llewelyn know what he should and should not be doing.
Llewelyn still seems very young–more like a teenager who acts first and thinks later, than a young man who has been married and to prison. Naive is one thing, acting without thinking is something else.
Regardless of those issues, I did enjoy the story and tore right through it wanting to know what was going to happen next. I like Barker and do want to learn more about him, so the mystery or Barker threads through each book in the series.
If you like Victorian mysteries, then you should enjoy the Barker and Llewelyn series. You should be able to start with The Limehouse Text even if you have not read other books in the series.
The Hellfire Conspiracy (2007)
Once again Llewelyn falls in love, and once again he gets beat up–although this time it’s truly his own fault, not Barker’s.
I’m conflicted about this book. I tore through the story wanting to know what happened, but once I finished it had a hard time figuring out what I enjoyed about the story. The abuse and murder of girls is always difficult to read about, but he didn’t dwell overly on the deaths and violations, and used the Victorian terms, which took some of the horror of the events. However, I didn’t get that Llewelyn or Barker actually felt anything about the horror happening to the girls, or the wrongness of the group of Lords trying to keep the age of consent at 13 and not 16. I should have been outraged, but instead these things passed through my brain without making much of an impression.
I’m also frustrated by Llewelyn’s constantly falling in love and it all going wrong somehow. Not that it seems out of character for him particularly, but it’s a little annoying that every case we read has him falling for a pretty face. There’s nothing specific I can point out, it’s just … annoying.
Perhaps it’s just me, and I wasn’t in the mood to read this book right now. Like I said, I read it quickly and wanted to know what happened. It’s just that once I finished I felt vaguely dissatisfied for no reason I can find. It’s not going to stop me from reading the next book in the series, but I’m also not going to rush to read the next book in the series.
The Black Hand (2008)
Barker is called down to the docks, where a barrel containing a dead Italian had been pulled from the river. This single body draws Barker and Llewelyn into a case involving an attempt by the Sicilian mafia to start in London–something Barker, Scotland Yard, and the Home Office want desperately not to happen.
As usual, the book begins with Llewelyn in danger–this time in a knife fight in the dark. I think I’ve come to actually like this introduction. You know Llewelyn isn’t going to die in the story–since he’s narrating the story–and it draws you in as you wonder who he will move from a dead body on the docks to a knife fight in an estate conservatory.
We continue to see Llewelyn mature, and although he’s still saucy, he’s no longer making the stupid mistakes he did in earlier books (which is a nice change). Although Barker is as secretive as ever, we see him slowly letting Llewelyn see more pieces of his life. This time we get a glance at his seafaring past, and also (finally) we meet The Widow, who has piqued Llewelyn’s interest from the start.
I actually quite liked The Widow. She’s everything you’d expect of a man like Baker, which is good. Though feisty Victorian/Regency women always make me a bit nervous, since if they had existed in reality in the numbers they exist in literature, the world would be a far different place than it is.
The mystery was interesting, and although I caught one part of it immediately, I thought perhaps the second big reveal was perhaps a bit far fetched. But it wasn’t bad, and it kept my attention.
If you have not read a previous book in the Barker & Llewelyn series, you should be able to read The Black Hand without any difficulty. However, one of the better parts of the book was realizing how Llewelyn has matured over the course of the series, so you’ll be missing out on that, though his past is alluded to. (Which in theory might ruin the first book for you, if you were interested in going back and starting there.)