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by James McGee
HarperCollins, February 2006
416 pages
ISBN: 0007212666

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Matthew Hawkwood, Bow Street Runner, is a maverick. Out of the army after killing a catastrophically incompetent senior officer in a duel and then engaging in what might be considered treason, he hardly seems the ideal candidate for a job with the forerunner to the Metropolitan Police.

But when the disappearance of an elderly London clockmaker and an unusually brutal highway robbery-murder frustrate the Runners, Bow Street chief James Read knows that only Hawkwood can provide him with the answers he needs.

Like Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, Hawkwood appears to get by because he has more reason than scruples. As the plot of RATCATCHER unfolds, entangling Hawkwood and his war-threatened country in a dangerous mess with frightening contemporary parallels, McGee reveals that the real rats make their holes in places much higher up than the St Giles taverns and hovels frequented by his usual suspects.

Hawkwood is an outsider, but one whose alienation demonstrates what's wrong with the society he cannot completely rejoin. In this, he reminded me of James Fenimore Cooper's pre-Revolutionary American defector-hero, Hawkeye. Whether the naming is deliberate is a mystery I can't solve, but it makes the subtle political criticism glow rather more conspicuously.

If you're into science, technology, military history, or Regency crime, you'll love RATCATCHER. There is even a street map of Regency London reproduced on the paper lining the inside cover, so you can follow Ratcatcher on his jagged paths through the urban maze.

Clearly fascinated by the research that went into the book, McGee keeps the suspense and dark humour intense, so the carefully interwoven description never seems dry or static. His reconstruction of the argot of the fencers, thieves, and prostitutes of 1807 sounds natural, smoothly translated by contextualisation in the dialogue rather than the intrusion of a modern explanatory voice.

At the same time, Ratcatcher is a glaringly modern novel, which vehemently explores such issues as ethics in war, a government's accountability to its people, and the proliferation and international dealing of increasingly complex and nightmarish weapons.

I found it rather predictable that Hawkwood's mysterious lady love behaves a bit like a femme fatale out of film noir, or the fiction, including Hammett's, from which some famous examples of that genre were adapted. Recognising her as a creature of this tradition made the mystery relatively easy to solve. She is also very one-dimensional: a fantasy more than a character.

Still, RATCATCHER is a read-it-all-at-once book, thanks to McGee's fine command of suspense, his insistence upon making his characters' choices impossibly difficult yet horrifically believable, and a twist ending that is as unpredictable and unresolved as it is shocking.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, February 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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