Mystery Books for Sale

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by Philip Gooden
Soho Constable, July 2008
256 pages
ISBN: 1569475121

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Thomas Ansell is a lawyer working for the London firm of Scott, Lye and Mackenzie. He is given the unusual task of traveling to Salisbury to take possession of a manuscript discovered among the papers of George Slater. Felix Slater, George's son, is in need of advice regarding this document for his own piece of mind and for the protection of the manuscript.

Canon Felix Slater is a highly religious, straitlaced man and is scandalized by his father's memoirs. This manuscript relates events from George's youth when he was friends with men such as Lord Byron and PB Shelley. As both of these men are known for behavior that shocked society, Canon Slater would rather bury these papers rather than leave them available to the public. Yet at the same time he cannot condone their destruction. As an amateur archeologist, he values the discovery of the past and the lessons it can teach. Felix Slater therefore wishes advice on the best way for the papers to remain discretely hidden until after his death.

This seems to be a straightforward albeit slightly unusual request to Thomas Ansell. Unfortunately this is not how it turns out. Ansell sees several unusual events in Salisbury, which ultimately result in the murder of Slater. As Ansell is discovered near the corpse, with blood on him, he is the mostly likely suspect and is quickly arrested. Luckily Ansell's girlfriend, Helen, arrives and is able to secure his release. Helen is not the meek Victorian woman her family believes her to be; she quickly begins investigating the murder in order to clear Ansell's name. Together the two of them follow a strange and deadly trail, which if they do not remain on their guard will end in their deaths.

THE SALISBURY MANUSCRIPT has a very Victorian feeling narrative. This book uses a lot of clichés and prejudices about Victorian society to develop the characters and make certain actions plausible. This “editorializing” is frustrating to the reader as the beliefs regarding women, life and property that were held by the Victorians are not those held by modern readers. It is difficult to warm up to Thomas Ansell when so many of his opinions seem misguided and stereotypical.

That said, Helen is an appealing character as she steps outside the role of the traditional Victorian woman. She is the type of character who quietly follows her own path without attempting to start a movement, or scandalize her family or friends. She accepts that some changes are best brought about by careful planning. While I would be satisfied with never hearing about Thomas Ansell's situations and adventures again, I would like to see how Helen develops as a character well skilled at surviving the restrictions placed on a Victorian woman.

Reviewed by Sarah Dudley, February 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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