Book Review

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Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders, by Mick Finlay

I don’t generally make a point of reading Victorian [or other historical eras, for that matter] detective stories in preference to contemporary ones, as they have stiff competition, even to this day, from Conan Doyle, but if one looks interesting, I am certainly willing to give it a try. This book appears to be the fourth in a series about these characters, private [note: not “consulting”] detectives, William Arrowood and his partner, Norman Barnett, and in a slightly cheeky, ‘wink-wink’, gesture, the irrevocably famous pinnacle of the detecting genre of this period is mentioned by name in the story by Arrowood himself, and described  in somewhat ungracious terms as a rather arrogant, self-satisfied and not necessarily a great deal more competent competitor; on the evidence of my first outing for this character, I’m not entirely convinced that this assessment is well-founded.

I hate to have to say it, but I found this a rather stodgy read, for a variety of reasons. The story is narrated by Barnett and, to emphasise that he is a member of the working class and not highly educated, his grammar is colloquial, to say the least—to quote Finlay himself, from the historical notes section & bibliography at the end of the book: “a white man born in the slums of Bermondsey. As such, the story is filtered through his perceptions and understandings.” As a narrative device, I don’t have any ideological objection to this, but I did find it somewhat wearing before the end of the book. Plus, several words are used by different characters which are not specifically anachronisms: just unfamiliar, and there is no glossary to enlighten the floundering reader. Finally, notwithstanding that it is one of my pet banes, I don’t know if “stomp” was in common parlance in late 19th century England. In his favour, it’s obvious that Finlay has done assiduous research on the period, and he does make his main character demonstrably fair-minded & accommodating in his dealings with refugees from Britain’s imperial ‘benevolence’, specifically in south Africa.

I can’t say a lot about the plot, because after the initial murders, at a Quaker meeting house, there are several developments which move the narrative along, albeit slowly, but to reveal any of them now would rather spoil the story. Arrowood is not brought in to assist the legitimate police, as is generally the case with private detectives: in fact, he & Barnett are only barely tolerated by Detective Inspector Napper of Scotland Yard, who is stereotypically plodding & prone to arriving at hasty solutions, but his rapport with Barnett does seem slightly more accommodating than that with Arrowood; also, of the two, Barnett is not the junior partner when it comes to detection, and his attitude toward his notional employer could occasionally be described as insubordinate, although, to be fair, Arrowood has his fair share of problems distracting him.

The drudgery & often visceral misery of life for London’s Victorian poor is well realised, so although this is clearly fiction, the reader can feel reasonably assured that this is Victorian life at its most authentically odoriferous, and the paperback version I read, published by HQ, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, London, in 2021, ISBN 978-0-00-832455-1, also has a very well known image on the front cover, in suitably dark monochromatic tones, that of a curving row of cramped back-to-back houses, with a narrow passage between the yards, leading to a viaduct over which a smoky locomotive is passing. The perpetrator is finally found, and Napper does at least have the good grace to concede that Arrowood & Barnett’s help was instrumental in this achievement.

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