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by Robert J. Lloyd
Melville House, October 2021
416 pages
ISBN: 1612199399

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The Welsh writer and artist Robert J. Lloyd specializes in landscapes: resolutely urban ones. One genre in which he paints is the street-level cityscape, full of tempting alleys, clutter, and secrets. This is also true of his meticulously researched, utterly compelling historical crime novel THE BLOODLESS BOY, published in the UK in 2014 and now in the US.

Through the streets of 1678 London Lloyd follows Henry Hunt, historical Observator of the Royal Society—lab assistant to the city's top scientists. When Hunt encounters the bodies of several young boys mysteriously drained of their blood, he must navigate the urban labyrinth to solve the mystery.

Unfortunately, his investigations bring him much closer to home as he unearths a conspiracy in which science and intrigue meet and combust. Lloyd paints his London in full color, sound, touch, taste, and smell. This is a London just emerging from the 'Conflagration,' as his characters know it, of 1666, as well as the plague. Strong-smelling, wet, and rotting, it is defined by corruption – including the political variety. If Hunt can discover who has been stealing the boys' blood, and why, he will get a frightening and exhilarating glimpse of his country's scientific future.

Not only a horrific urban picaresque, THE BLOODLESS BOY is a fascinating lesson in British scientific history. The best description that I have read of the famous Boyle air pump is in this book. (Caution: it's nauseating.) One of the most accurately depicted, fully fleshed out of the characters is microbiology pioneer Robert Hooke, who might be a genius but proves in some ways less observant than the humbler Hunt.

Meanwhile, Hunt's fervent belief in observation-based investigation makes him more than a prototype of Dupin and Sherlock Holmes. He proves impervious to religious bigotry, unlike many of his fellow Londoners.

If this sounds like a male-dominated world, it is. Hunt is accurately ill at ease with the women of his world, particularly Hooke's niece Grace, whom he once almost kissed.

However, the women who do inhabit it -particularly the more powerful ones — are solid characters whose lives do not, in fact, revolve around the men and who, unlike a lot of historical fiction heroines, express no feel-good anachronistic feminist sentiments.

Key among these women is sword-fighting beauty Hortense Mancini (yes, she really was); her beloved Anne Lennard, a not-so-secret natural daughter of Charles II; and courtly artist's model Frances Teresa Stewart, best known as the longtime face of Britannia on coins, whose loyalty to those she loves is as fierce as her harsh world demands.

If you feel at this point that to read this book you will need a cast list, Lloyd helpfully provides one, but his plotting is clear and characterization rich enough that you won't actually depend upon it. While some liberties have been taken with history, including one rather extreme one, the science is accurate and the interventions fit easily into the gaps in the historical record.

I really enjoyed the way that Lloyd mixes and mashes up time, culture, and genre. Set just before the advent of the novel in English, THE BLOODLESS BOY reads like a nineteenth-century urban mystery, along the lines of Victor Hugo's NOTRE DAME DE PARIS (THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME) or its sprawling, suspenseful British successors, such as THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON, SWEENEY TODD, or THE STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE.

Lloyd also transcends this model by suggesting that the city itself is a living organism. "The Cathedral awaited them, its ribs and stomach open to the sky," Hunt observes. "Surrounding it lay more stones, bricks, earth, and timber. Like organs cut from it, more than materials to build it up." To understand how society works, he must learn the secrets of the body — and vice versa.

Lloyd has teased a sequel to THE BLOODLESS BOY. I can't wait to read it.

§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, September 2021

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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