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At the start of KILL-DEVIL AND WATER anti-hero Pyke is languishing in prison for non-payment of debt. He is released at the intervention of his old acquaintance Fitzroy Tilling of the quite recently formed New Police force (the 'Peelers'). Tilling wants Pyke to investigate the murder of a mulatto woman who has been found with her eyes gouged out in a dismal part of London (and the dismal parts of London in 1840 are very dismal). The police themselves cannot take on the investigation because all their resources are committed to finding the killer of Lord Bedford, and the murder of a nobleman takes precedence over the slaughter of a poor woman. Pyke, although initially hesitant, soon becomes committed to tracking down the murderer of Mary Edgar as he discovers her name to be. His quest takes him from the London slums and underworld to high society to the plantations of Jamaica and back again to London and involves master-criminals and pornographers, ex-slave-owners and ex-slaves. At the same time his personal life is in disarray as he tries to build a relationship with his 10-year old son Felix and to deal with his ever-present grief over his wife Emily who was murdered (in a previous Pyke book; KILL-DEVIL AND WATER is the third in the series).
There are a lot of good things and one very good one about this book. The very good is the plot. Yes, a real-to-goodness genuine mystery plot! A plot which when revealed comes complete with that 'of course I should have seen that' sensation (those brighter than me might see it) and which ties together all the book's disparate stories in a most satisfactory way. The plot makes use of the historical setting in an effective manner to boot (something which I cannot understand why more historical mystery writers do not do). I know that I tend to sing Hallelujah whenever such a plot occurs but that is because, despite the fact that they should be the absolute bedrock of the mystery genre, they are in reality damn rare. So Hallelujah for the plot!
But there are many other good things. KILL-DEVIL AND WATER sets out to be a serious book and it succeeds; it has weight and gravitas. Pepper makes a few references to Dickens and Thackeray and his own book has a 19th century solidity. There is a lot of it and it has things to say; things about the history and society of the time. And it manages the feat of being believably angry about that history and society. But it doesn't do this by beating the reader over the head with facts; instead they are integrated into the narrative and the plot. The excursion to Jamaica, which is a real highlight, is a necessary part of the book. Nor does Pepper use a lot of 19th century slang or tediously detailed descriptions of food, apparel and other minutiae (not that such descriptions cannot be effective but they have been done before and therefore tend to be derivative). His use of Dickens and Thackeray and their opposing political viewpoints is an example of this; it really works (and I now really dislike Thackeray!).
So given all these, genuine and substantial, pluses what is it that prevents me from giving the book an unqualified alpha-rating? There is one simple answer to this. Pyke. The series' central conceit is to take a noir anti-hero (and Pyke is very anti) and put him in 19th century London. Now the positive side of this is that Pyke's anger and political outlook enable Pepper to have an effective voice for his historical observations. But the great weakness is that Pyke is not an especially interesting character and cannot take the psychological weight which is laid upon him. In fairness it may be that those who have his followed his career in the previous series books would be more involved with this aspect; there are a lot of references to back-stories. Beyond this it means there is an obligation for him to have frequent resort to derring-do and violence. The master-criminals are not really necessary to the book's historical setting but form part of the anti-hero paradigm. All this makes KILL-DEVIL AND WATER a very male book. It is the limitation of the noir anti-hero genre and does not vanish when that genre is transported to the London of 1840.
Despite this reservation KILL-DEVIL AND WATER deserves two very hearty cheers. The plot is excellent, the writing good, the historical and political observation both gripping and committed. And it is real value for money; this is a lot of book in terms of weight of plot, detail, and seriousness of purpose.
Reviewed by Nick Hay, January 2009
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