Bruce Alexander

Books: Mystery | Historical

Sir John Fielding: Blind Justice (1994), Murder on Grub Street (1995), Watery Grave (1996), Person or Persons Unknown (1997), Jack, Knave and Fool (1998), Death of a Colonial (1999), The Color of Death (2000), Smuggler's Moon (2001), An Experiment in Treason (2002), The Price of Murder (2003)

Sir John Fielding

Blind Justice (1994)

Jeremy Proctor was orphaned at thirteen, after a mob kills his father–all under the guise of justice. Jeremy runs away to London, and it is there that he first encounters Sir John Fielding, the famous magistrate of Bow Street. While Sir John is trying to find an apprenticeship for him,  Jeremy stays at his house and ends up helping Sir John as he attempts to clear the mystery surrounding the death of Lord Richard Goodhope.

I'm a big fan of Victorian (and similar) mysteries, and Bow Street and thief-takers and that entire era of criminal justice is simply fascinating. So if someone writes even moderately well, I'm going to be interested.

Unlike some of the other mysteries I have that are set in Bow Street around this time period, the story focuses not upon the thief-takers and constables, but upon the magistrate, and his attempts to resolve the crime. Even more interesting, Sir John Fielding is an actual historical figure, and this book (and others) is a fictionalized account of his  life after the death of his brother Henry, when he took over at Bow Street.

What isn't clear from the stories is whether these are fictionalized accounts of true crimes, or whether the author took liberties in creating cases that were appropriate to the time.

However, regardless of whether this was a true case or a made up on, the story is both interesting and enjoyable. Because Jeremy is new to London, we can have the area and the time explained with relative ease. And because he is young, we only see parts of the story. This allows disturbing things to have occurred, without an explicit explanation. We can guess what has happened, but don't have to be told.

The mystery was strong, although I have to said that I wondered whether the "I have gathered you together here today" bit was realistic. It's interesting, but is that really how things were done? I don't know, so I'm curious.

I'm also curious as to how the rest of the series will proceed. We learned a great deal about Sir John Fielding and 18th century London in this book. I am curious as to whether the same ground will be recovered in the second book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and have ordered as much of the rest of the series as I could find used. I also left this book in Baltimore with my grandmother, because I think she'll love it.  

Rating: 7/10

Murder on Grub Street (1995)

The second Sir John Fielding mystery, Murder in Grub Street opens with a recreation of broadsheet announcing the news of a horrific murder on Grub Street. A publisher on Grub street whose family and apprentices were all murdered in their beds. This cases shocks not just London, but also Jeremy Proctor, who was to have begun his apprenticeship with Ezekiel Crabb the following day.

Not only does this give us a gruesome and exciting murder, but it also allows Jeremy to remain with Sir John Fielding--the end of the first book closes with Sir John saying that despite the wishes of his wife and Jeremy, the best place for Jeremy is an apprenticeship with a printer. So we can continue to see London through Jeremy's eyes, and learn more about Sir John through the boy living with him.

There was a great deal of character development in the first book, and although Jeremy's situation, and that of Sir John Fielding are briefly covered, this tales builds upon the previous book. I'm not sure how this would effect someone picking up this book as their introduction to Sir John Fielding, but with Amazon andAbebooks, there's hardly a need to start in the middle of a series.

In this book I particularly liked how Bruce Alexander extricated Jeremy from leaving Sir John's household, and how the step made sense in the context of the characters and the situation. It was a very neat solution. I also liked how characters from the previous book that I didn't think to see again appeared in this book--some with surprising results.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the mystery and watching it unfold. As with the first book, all the pieces were there, but I didn't necessarily put them together. I also liked the existence of sub-plots and stories; it was hard to tell what was related to the mystery, and what was a sub-plot that was unrelated to the murders.

The one problem I had with the book was that there were a group of religious zealots who happened to be from North America from the Monongahela valley. HEY! No fair! My home area gets mentioned in a book and it's because there are a bunch of religious nut jobs? Wah!

I am a huge fan of British mysteries, starting with Agatha Christie's Miss Marple mysteries and moving forth from there. But I think that murders set during this time period--at the creation of the Bow Street Runners yet when there were still independent thief-takers--are especially fascinating. They're also a reminder of how lucky I am to live in a modern era. I may enjoy reading historical mysteries and high fantasy--but I certainly wouldn't want to live in such a time period. I like electricity and computers indoor plumbing and orange juice year round.

If you like British mysteries, then this is a series you won't want to miss. As I said, you could almost certainly pick up this mystery and read it without having read the previous book. But really, you should start the series at the beginning.

Rating: 7/10

Watery Grave (1996)

Tom Durham–son of the now Lady Fielding–has returned to London on shore leave from the Navy. He returns with a love of the sea, and a desire to make the Navy his life. But coming ashore with him are orders for the trial of one of the members of the crew of H.M.S. Adventure–the murder of the captain by one of the Lieutenants. Charges brought by the now acting captain.

These mysteries get better and better as the series continues. Jeremy is now settled into Sir John's house, although his relationships with Lady Fielding and Tom are still unsure, his place with Sir John is set, as is his desire to study law.

I was also glad to see Black Jack Bilbo return--and to take certain matters of Jeremy's upbringing into his own hands, as the previous two books have shown that in some matters, Jeremy's education is sorely lacking. (And I have to admit that his descriptions are definitely something only a man would come up with.)

It strikes me as more than passing strange how this book manages to combine the other two books I'm reading now: Johathan Liss's The Spectacle of Corruption and Patrick O'Brian's Post Captain. Although Watery Grave doesn't recreate the Naval world as well as Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, it isn't really trying to, since the focus is not upon Naval traditions, but upon the clash of Naval law and the King's Law. (Although I have to admit that reading this along side of O'Brian is probably not something I would recommend, since the Navy of Aubrey and Maturin is quite different from the Navy described in Watery Grave, and comes up short.)

I was also curious as to why the story didn't turn on the initial premise of the book--that a single event can look different from two separate perspectives. There was nothing wrong with the story was written, but to me it didn't meet up with the conclusion of the Prologue:

That final movement is seen by two men on the quarterdeck below. The first, who stands wrestling with the helm, glances across at the crucial moment and perceives it as a futile attempt to hold the doomed man back. The second, holding tight to the stout rope which secures a cannon in place, later describes it as a final push which sends the unfortunate to his watery grave.

Rescuer or murderer? That question would occupy us profoundly for some time to come. And even to this day, that question of intent remains matter for heated discussion, even bitter argument among those many whose lives it touched.

I guess I just expected the conclusion to be slightly less obvious, with a greater focus on intent than upon the resolution of the story. (After the first several chapters, I didn't particularly see intent fitting into the story much at all.)

So although the writing and the storytelling are even better in this book than the previous two--there were some minor issues that distracted me slightly from the storytelling. But I have to say that although after certain point you knew where things were going, and no matter how much you hoped they go otherwise, you still knew they weren't going to go they way you wanted. That's something that I appreciate in a mystery--sometimes there isn't a happy ending, and sometimes things don't work out the way you want. And I love it when an author is brave enough to do that.

So although I don't recommend that you read this book while you're also reading Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander series, I do recommend that you read this book after you have read the previous two in the series. It's an excellent mystery and an enjoyable story. And like the previous two books, this is definitely going to be sent to my grandmother.

Rating: 7/10

Person or Persons Unknown (1997)

About a year has passed since the events ofWatery Grave and Jeremy Proctor is starting to become a full fledged teenager–in though if not in deed. Although he appreciates what Sir John Fielding has done for him, he begins to feel that he is being treated like a child, instead of the man he is sure he has become. Luckily, there isn’t too much teenage rebellion here, mostly just cranky teenage thoughts.

Meanwhile, someone in London has started murdering prostitutes. The first is found soon after she was killed, with a precise strike to the heart with a long, thin knife. Further deaths follow, and the list of suspects ranges from a solider to individuals near and dear to Jeremy.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The mysteries are getting better, although it is worrisome how Jeremy manages to be at the scene of so many of the crimes in this book. Either London was much smaller than it is today, or he had terribly bad luck to keep chancing upon the scene of the crimes at the right time. But it's a mystery, so one comes to expect things like that--and at least Jeremy has the excuse of spending a great deal of time with the magistrate and various Bow Street Runners, so that would in many cases more likely to become more involved in finding dead bodies than one would normally expect of your average fifteen year-old boy.

Yet before I pick too many nits, I'd like to point out that these concerns/issues came to me only after I had finished the story. While reading the tale was good enough that I was sucked in, and thoughts of realism and probability were nowhere to be found. I was interested only in discovering the identity of the person or persons unknown responsible for the deaths.

Although I thought Jeremy's fascination with Mariah was a bit foolish, I've never been a teenage boy, so that may well have been a reasonable occurrence. And more importantly, it served to explain yet again how so many women in London ended up on the streets of becoming prostitutes--without coming across as a lecture. Another instance in the story also served to remind one of how far women have come in the world. In the past women were chattel and property of men--and husbands and fathers could treat their wives and daughters as they pleased.

Yet one more reminder of why I'm glad to be alive in modern times.

Although Black Jack Bilbo barely appears in this story, I was glad to see the return of Mr Donnelly, the doctor. Although I don't ever get the sense of his accent from his dialogue, I still like him, and like how he noticed far more than anyone in Jeremy's household, that Jeremy is growing up. I also like the relationship that Jeremy develops with Mr Perkins (although I have to doubt that I month of fisticuffs would be enough to serve Jeremy as well as it did.)

So although I found some aspects of the story a tad bit unbelievable, it didn't particularly bother me. After all, if I wanted 100% realism, then I'd be reading non-fiction. If you haven't read a Sir John Fielding book, then you should be able to read this without having read the previous three books. But really, why not read the books in order if you have the chance?  

Rating: 8/10

Jack, Knave and Fool (1998)

I think the Sir John Fielding mysteries get better as the series continues. Characters continue to be introduced to the series, while familiar characters continue to make an appearance and play an important part in the life of Jeremy Proctor.

In Jack, Knave and Fool Jeremy speaks of what more normal times at Number 4 Bow Street--The less spectacular cases that would have made up the majority of the criminal cases promenaded before Sir John Fielding. But of course this is a mystery, so there is (of course) murder.

We also take a longer look at some of the other members of Sir John's household--namely Annie, who has become Sir John's cook. We learn some of her wishes and hopes, and although I don't find her quite as interesting and likable as Jeremy, it is good to see the household rounded out, and Jeremy focus upon those other than himself. Something that becomes more appropriate as Jeremy becomes older. It was also good to see Jeremy's renewed interest in studying the law, as he focuses more upon than that, than upon becoming a Bow Street Runner.

But most of all I am enjoying the mysteries. In particular, I liked how Sir John was dealing with multiple cases at once--something that I find more reasonable than the singular focus on a single case that was prominent in the previous mysteries. I also like how Jimmie Bunkins continues to progress in his studies and reformation, yet remains in touch with the edges of criminal society.

I also find it interesting how things we take for granted in modern society are very difficult or simply don't exist at the time of these stories, such as a qualified coroner, tests for poisons, the ability of law officials to order autopsies, etc.

(Slight) SPOILER  (rot 13)

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Again, although think you could easily readJack, Knave and Fool without having read the previous books in the series, I think that it would be far more enjoyable to read the series in order.  

Rating: 8/10

Death of a Colonial (1999)

There is a distinct disadvantage to buying used books on-line. In order to get as many books as possible from as few sellers as possible, I didn’t pay close attention to the sellers comments, and so ended up not only with five hard-backed books (ick) but a hard back larger print edition ofDeath of a Colonial. however, I have to say that other than having to turn pages more frequently, the large print wasn’t that big a deal.

Jeremy is sixteen and has started discussing law with Sir John Fielding, and paying even closer attention to the cases that come to Bow street--as well as taking regular trips to Old Bailey, to watch the cases that were tried there. In an effort to continue to expand Jeremy's education, Sir John sends Jeremy to look up his unresolved cases file. It's actually quite slender--only three cases (which I find rather unlikely actually). Additionally, Jeremy accompanies Sir John to the house of the Lord Chief Justice, where a commission has been gathered to resolve the issue of the Laningham estate. A claimant has appeared--the putative brother of Lawrence Paltrow, who has spent years in the American colonies--without even a word or letter to even his mother the whole time he has been gone.

There are several things that bothered me about this story. First, I would have found it far more convincing had the Red File been brought up in response to the case, rather than preceding Sir John's involvement in the case. That was just a little too neat for me. I also had minor issues with the resolution of the story. Again, things were just a tad bit too neat for my liking. I also wasn't sure I believe the reasons that some of the characters acted in the manner they did. It was convenient for Jeremy, but I wasn't sure I found it believable.

But the tale was interesting, the way it moved through time and back and forth through the colonies. And I certainly didn't expect some of the events that occurred, and that is always nice. And although Jeremy is acting like an annoying teenager in some places, he is acting like a believable annoying teenager, so it wasn't bad. (Hubris, thy name is teenager.)

So although this was an interesting addition to the series, it is probably my least favorite book so far.  

Rating: 5/10

The Color of Death (2000)

Sir John Fielding (and thus Jeremy) are called out when a gang of black men robbed a house on St. James street and murdered one of the porters during the course of their crime. But most importantly, events conspire to cause Jeremy to conduct a great deal of this investigation himself. So we finally see how Jeremy has grown and progressed since his arrival at Bow Street and is growing into the successful barrister we know he will become.

And amidst this investigation, there are changes at Sir John's residence on Bow Street, as events put into motion several books back reach their culmination.

Because there are many events in this book that build upon events in earlier books, there is a good deal of repetition of events, although it is done in such a manner that not only are we reminded of past events, but in some cases we learn more about the events than we did at the time.

This was, for me, a vast improvement upon the previous book in the series. As Jeremy grows, he becomes slightly less annoying, yet he is still a teenager, and still is at times insufferably annoying. Luckily, as the story is told from the point of view of Jeremy years later, he freely admits to his attitudes and mistakes. Which is a huge help.

I also like that we see Jeremy's need to be accepted by Sir John. His position in the house is an odd one. Sir John cares for him yet does not adopt him. It makes sense that this would inevitable lead to a sense of insecurity on Jeremy's part, as he attempts to become the person Sir John believes him to be, while struggling to make Sir John appreciate him as he is.

Although there were a few things that seemed awkward or slightly off in the book--such as Mr. Burnham's reaction to his treatment by Sir John. Although I do have a thought about this.

SPOILER  (rot 13)

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This book presented an interesting view of race relations--specifically the idea that to the white majority, one black man was the same as any other. It also briefly discusses the Sommerset case that was happening in London at that time. I can't know, of course, how authentic this presentation of race relations was. If anything, things seemed far more cordial than I would have expected. However, if there were not many blacks in London, then perhaps the overt racism that was more common in the Americas at that time didn't exist in London at that time.

I'm still enjoying this series, and continue to recommend it.  

Rating: 7/10

Smuggler's Moon (2001)

Lady Fielding has gone off to York to visit her mother who is ill. Soon after she leaves, Sir John is requested by the Lord Chief Justice to travel to Kent to check on the local magistrate, Albert Sarton. Because Sir John is in charge of Clarissa and Lady Fielding is away, John is to stay at the home of Sir Simon Grenville.

Additionally, Black Jack Bilbo has bought himself a ship and is thinking of selling his gaming house. It seems as if he has missed the sea more than he previously cared to admit.

Jeremy seems to have passed the worst of being a teenager--he is still young and sometimes makes foolish decisions, which is perfectly okay, since that's what teenagers and young adults do. He also remains influenced by Constable Perkins, as well as Sir John, although Constable Perkins sometimes seems more understanding of Jeremy's age. However, Jeremy continues to take more responsibility in his work with Sir John, and is now sent out to meetings and investigations on his own--something it was hard to imagine him doing back when he was thirteen.

This is another good story, and although I had guessed part of the mystery, there were other parts that I didn't see coming, and I always like that. I also enjoyed seeing more of Black Jack Bilbo and Jimmy Bunkins, although I find Black Jack Bilbo the more interesting of the two, and quite enjoyed learning more about Mister Bilbo as well as his past.

Although this story continues to build upon previous books, there is nothing here than hinges especially upon past events. So you could read this book without having read previous books, but you probably don't want to. Part of the joy of this series is seeing Jeremy grow and mature.

Rating: 7/10

An Experiment in Treason (2002)

Mister Donnelly takes Jeremy out to Portsmouth to see Benjamin Franklin perform an experiment. Although his politics is reviled by many, others are fascinated by his scientific experiments, and may have some sympathy for his politics. While Jeremy is gone, there is a brutal murder during the course of a burglary, and Clarissa briefly takes Jeremy’s place as Sir John’s eyes.

In addition to the murder and theft, there is a thread running through this book that concludes the story begun in Smuggler's Moon--namely, what happens to Lady Grenville, and continues the thread of what happens to Molly Sarton.

I think this must have been a somewhat difficult story to write, in that not only must he recreate Sir John Fielding, but he must also place words in the mouth of Benjamin Franklin, and manipulate actual historic events.

I was very interested in the view that Londoners had of Benjamin Franklin and the events occurring in the colonies--mobs outside Franklin's door and the like. It was also interesting to read Benjamin Franklin declare himself a local Englishman. I thought I had a biography of Benjamin Franklin around here somewhere--now I want to read it.

Although the story and the writing were good, I just didn't get sucked into the story the way I did some other of the other books in this series. Part of the problem may have been that there were several independent story lines going on at once, and so just as I became interested in one, the story shifted to another. So this made it easier than usual to put the book down.

If you have not read a Sir John Fielding book, this is probably not the best place to start. There are multiple threads from previous books that make far more sense if you've read the previous books.  

Rating: 6/10

The Price of Murder (2003)

The Price of Murder is the last, complete Sir John Fielding book written by Bruce Alexander. The body of a child is pulled from the river, and it is believed to be the body of a young girl reported as missing by her mother several weeks earlier. Meanwhile, Clarissa is pushing Jeremy to announce their engagement, while Jeremy (quite rightfully) protests that they cannot possibly get married until he is able to pass the bar work as a barrister.

The mystery is a good--although disturbing--one. The abuse and death of a child is a hard thing to read about, and even the minor details of the death disturbed me out of proportion to their few lines of text. It also contains an interesting look at horse racing in the late 1700s. When I think of horse racing, I think of the even and sanitized tracks I've seen on TV. However, the tracks described here were little more than rough paths that could serve as a danger to an unwary jockey and horse.

As with previous books, the strength of this story lies not in the mystery but in the fascinating historical details, given in the investigation of the crime, and in the person life of Jeremy. The time is romantic, but not overly romanticized. There is crime and poverty, and Jeremy always describes long travel as uncomfortable. It's interesting to read about this time period--but the writing always serves to remind me that I wouldn't want to live back then.

As the last, complete book written by Bruce Alexander, this actually serves as a good conclusion to the series. No threads are left hanging, and many threads are wrapped up. I've read the reviews of the last book, and am unsure whether I want to read a book started--but not finished--by Bruce Alexander. I'll think about it for awhile, and then get back to you.  

Rating: 8/10