books

Will Thomas

Books

Barker & Llewelyn: Some Danger Involved (2004), To Kingdom Come (2005), The Limehouse Text (2006), The Hellfire Conspiracy (2007), The Black Hand (2008)

 

 

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.
Rating: 7/10

Re-Read: July 2017

Set in London in 1884.

I believe I started with series when Grandmom was living with us–both of us loved it for certain.

Thomas Llewelyn is a young Welshman who is at the end of his rope. He was kicked out of Oxford, spent time in Oxford prison, and has now run out of money. His last hope is a position advertised in the paper.

ASSISTANT to prominent enquiry agent. Typing and shorthand required. Some danger involved in performance of duties. Salary commensurate with ability. 7 Craig’s Court.

The Enquiry Agent is Cyrus Barker, and of course hires Thomas. This book is the first case Thomas assisted with–the crucifixion of a Jew that seems like the start of a pogrom in England.

I love the history–especially that of the Jews in London.

Of all people, it was the Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, who restored the Jews to England in 1656, at the request of Rabbi Israel, a man not unlike our own Sir Moses. The first synagogue, Bevis Marks, opened in 1701. It was a Sephardic synagogue, Spanish and Portuguese, but the German and Dutch Ashkenazim followed almost immediately.

The anti-semitism wasn’t unexpected, but it was odd to see so-called Christians ignoring the New Testament just as they do today and building and imaginary man in their own image to suit their own needs.

He was the ‘New Man.’ Can you picture him as a hook-nosed, kinky-haired, furtive little fellow? Of course not! He was a big, bluff carpenter, a robust leader of men, a man’s man. He was the perfect specimen of manhood, and in all ways we should aspire to be like him.

I also also amused by some random bits.

“This fellow Cowen surely doesn’t intend to build a magical golem of clay, does he?”

“Why not? We’ve done it before, we can do it again.”

“I find a clay man marching around the East End a trifle hard to believe,” I confessed.

“Fine. We’ll make him out of steel and run him on steam, then. This is the nineteenth century, after all.”

For a first book, this was well done and very enjoyable, and didn’t fee like a first book–the characters obviously had detailed backgrounds, and the mystery was well-developed;

One anachronism stood out to me, and I can see how it was a simple mistake to make.

Sir Walter Raleigh, Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth the First all were imprisoned here at one time or other.

This is set in 1884. There was only one Elisabeth at the time, so why would she have been labeled as “the First”?

I enjoyed this just as much on a second read as I did on the first, though it makes me meloncholy and miss Grandmom a little.

I also wish the kindle versions weren’t so expensive–or that the ebooks were available to borrow from the library. $15 is a lot to pay for a second copy of a book.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Touchstone

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.
END SPOILER

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.
Rating: 8/10

Re-Read: October 2017

Set in London in 1884.

Unknown Irish bombers have blown up Scotland Yard and several others places in London, as part of their fight for freedom. Because they have threatened another bombing within a month, and because Scotland Yard has been unable to infiltrate the Irish factions, Barker decides to try himself, to keep London from being blown to kingdom come.

“Dunleavy’s an old Irish-American warhorse, who fought as a colonel on the secessionist side during the American War Between the States. He saw action at Antietam and Vicksburg. I was on the opposing side, but after the war, we worked together on an Irish raid into Canada, in an attempt to trade Toronto for Irish freedom. Of course, I sent word ahead and the attack was scuttled. I think Dunleavy still seethes over the losses of the Southern states but having a role in the new Irish government would more than make up for it.

Being who I am, I found the bits about bomb making fascinating. I can’t imagine trying to keep nitroglycerine below 30 using only chips off a block of ice. But then again, that would be why bombers of the time were often missing fingers.

“And what, if I may ask, are your politics?”

“I thought that would be obvious, young man. Like all makers of wholesale destruction, I am a pacifist. The bad thing about war is that it makes more evil people than it can take away, as Kant said.”

For obvious reasons, this bit amused me.

“Soho Vic,” I said to myself. “What names these street arabs have. I assume he was born in Soho?”

“Krakw, Poland,” Cyrus Barker informed me. “His real name is Stanislieu Sohovic.

I’m glad the library finally decided to get the kindle versions of these books, since I’d been wanting to re-read them.
Rating: 7.5/10

Publisher: Touchstone

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.
Rating: 7/10

Re-Read: November 2017

Set in London in 1885.

Inspector Bainbridge has come to Barker with new evidence in the case of the murder of Barker’s former assistant, Quong: a pawn ticket.

This reopens a year-old case, and leads to several new murders before Barker and Llewellyn discover the murderer.

“What exactly is a triad?” I asked.

“They are criminal fraternities that control the opium trade and other interests in China. They began as benevolent organizations whose purpose was to overthrow the Manchu dynasty. They have been corrupted from their original purpose, and their influence is beginning to grow beyond China.

One of the things I like about this series is that unlike a lot of mysteries where the main characters are police, Llewellyn has not come to see crime and death and ordinary and expected.

I was in awe of death then, and now after many years and experiences, still am. I have never grown jaded about it. One minute we are sentient beings and the next, fodder for worms.

A wooden chair on casters was pulled up to the desk, a chair which had been worn down by the seat of (character)’s trousers for years but would be worn down no farther.

The story also takes a look at bare-knuckle fighting, which has been outlawed in England.

The sport of bare-knuckle or old rule boxing had been declared illegal and could not now bring together champions from all over England as it once had.

I had boxed a little when I was in school, and I had seen a few matches as well. This wasn’t like those fights at all. It was more like fighting against a bully when I was a lad. The fists slamming into jaws and stomachs were mostly bone with a thin layer of tissue over it. It hurt to see it. The skin of both men began to turn an angry red. Surely it wouldn’t last long.

The mystery is one that had needed cleared up, and it is an interesting look into the Chinese area of London (and how segregated many areas of London were from one another).

It’s a fine mystery. Nothing spectacular, but the mystery of Baker’s past builds, as we learn a few more bits and pieces.
Rating: 7.5/10

Publisher: Touchstone

The Hellfire Conspiracy (2007)

Barker and Llewelyn are pulled into an ugly case–girls are going missing and then later turning up violated and dead. There seems to be a connection–however tenuous–to Charity Organization Society.

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.
Rating: 7/10

Re-Read: November 2017

Set in London in 1885.

Barker and Llewellyn are pulled into a case possibly involving the white slave trade–the sale of girls into prostitution.

I’d seen women in the East End, pursuing their occupation boldly in the light of day, but it had never occurred to me that they might not have come to the work willingly or were below the legal age of consent, which was thirteen years.

A man comes into their office demanding they find his twelve-year-old-daughter, who has disappeared, presumably kidnapped.

“I questioned Hypatia and all the staff. Then I spent an hour riding about the area. After that, I thought to tell Scotland Yard, so I rode back here. A fine lot of good that did me. They claimed Gwendolyn must be missing for twenty-four hours before they would lift a finger! Damned incompetence!”

“Their hands are tied by regulations, Major. You must not blame them.

It’s always horrifying to be reminded how children lived and were treated in the past–even if that past was just over 120 years ago.

“I have been hired to find a child’s murderer. I will associate with whomever helps me find him.”

The man got a tight smile on his face. “You have no clue what this is about, do you?”

“Enlighten me,” Barker murmured.

“Stead has vowed to see that the age of consent is raised from thirteen to sixteen. I represent a consortium of men who will not allow that to occur.”

Hell, it’s horrifying to see how adults were treated, even by those supposedly looking out for them.

“(T)here are socialists and then there are socialists. I am a Christian socialist. I believe it is our duty when the churches have been unable to help and some people have fallen through the cracks to step in and save them. It is the only alternative to the workhouse.”

Interestingly, we also get some of Baker’s social beliefs, which themselves (to me) are horrifying. Yet somehow drop right into today’s political climate.

“You do not approve of socialism? If it makes any difference, I believe the term Miss Hill used was ‘Christian socialist.’”

“Christian socialist,” Barker muttered. “That is even worse.”

“What is the difference, pray, in the good works you do in the Tabernacle and the work of the Christian socialist?”

“It starts with their entire worldview, lad. They believe that man is basically good, and that, given the proper nudge by such crusading women, they can turn the earth into a utopia and usher in the millennium.”

“And you believe—”

“That man, from the time he is born is at heart selfish and any attempt at utopia shall fail miserably. Heaven shall not be attained on earth.”

Ugh.

The mystery is not bad, but the kidnapping, rape, and murder of children is a hard thing to read. (The rape occurs off the page, but you still know it happens.) This is not my favorite of these books.

Publisher: Touchstone

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.)
Rating: 7/10

Re-Read: January 2018

The fifth Barker & Llewelyn book finds the inquiry agent and his apprentice asked to find a solution to mafia killings that have come to London.

“Are many of them Sicilian?”

“Sicilian?” Dunham asked, as if it were a new word to his vocabulary. “Dunno ’bout that. One I-talian’s pretty much like another, I reckon.”

“Oh, no,” I put in. “They’re all different. Italy’s only been unified in recent times, and even now, the country is in discord. Most of the south is full of secret criminal societies.”

Here’s something familiar:

“But if I have to deport a hundred unlawful immigrants in order to stop a handful of Mafia criminals knowledgeable about making bombs and killing people, I won’t lose any sleep over it. I have public safety to consider and I can’t afford to be subtle.”

And something else familiar:

The Italians are willing to work for a wage that, frankly, the English workers won’t accept, but they have begun to demand a minimum number of working hours per day, which is madness, because we can’t guarantee the work.

And here’s a fascinating tidbit:

“The Sicilians hate the French, of course.” “The French? Why?” “Sicily was ruled by the Bourbons for decades. The Mafia was formed to combat them. The word Mafia is an acronym for ‘Kill the French is Italy’s cry.’”

However.

This bothered me a bit.

He attended no theater, was tone-deaf, and read few novels.

He is a fluent Chinese speaker. Can you really be fluent in any dialect of Chinese and be tone-deaf?

To sum, I really like this historic portions of these books. The mysteries are interesting, but to be honest, this wasn’t a really a mystery.

I started the next book, but it wasn’t holding my attention, so I moved onto something else. We’ll see how long it takes me to pick the next book back up.
Rating: 7/10

Publisher: Touchstone