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by James McCreet
Pan, May 2011
304 pages
7.99 GBP
ISBN: 0330517139

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It's seven years since Sergeant George Williamson failed to convince an inquest that his wife's death was not a suicide. He has since left the Detective Force, but a spate of murders prompts him to begin an unofficial investigation of his own. What is the nature of the Vice Society, who are its masterminds and what links them to the dead women and men? To find out, Williamson must join forces with former colleague, Inspector Albert Newsome and, more controversially, master criminal Noah Dyson. Convinced that the Vice Society is behind not only the recent murders but the staged suicide of his wife, Williamson risks his neck and those of his unlikely allies, in pursuit of the truth.

'Before Sherlock Holmes,' the book jacket promises, 'there was Albert Newsome.' But this isn't Newsome's story. It's Williamson's, for whom the stakes are higher, thereby securing the reader's sympathy. Perhaps the more interesting protagonist, however, is Noah Dyson, whose character is certainly the most clearly drawn and memorable.

The story suffers slightly from a surfeit of protagonists, some confusion as to the hierarchy of antagonists and a tendency on McCreet's part to muddy matters with an abundance of narrative conceits, such as the sporadic reminder that our narrator is an anonymous writer shadowing our cast in pursuit of a saleable story.

There's no doubt that McCreet (a former English teacher) has done his homework and the book's best moments are those which transport the reader to the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian London. This viscera becomes a little overdone on occasion, however, and there's a danger of the 'murky depths' sensation becoming too murky for sense to be made of what's happening or, more importantly, why we should care.

One of McCreet's best achievements is the wonderfully sinister and (literally) rotten 'J.S.' a man in the advanced stages of syphilitic decay. J.S. appears to be the brains behind the Vice Society. There's a problem, however, as McCreet is never quite clear enough as to the relationship between J.S. and the other, more obvious villains of the piece. The final fate of these characters is confused (during a splendidly visceral and gory climatic sequence), with the result that the resolution feels a little shaky and less defined than the reader might like, or than the author intended.

McCreet is writing about a period of history fraught with dubious morals and motives, so perhaps it's fitting that his story is something of a stew in terms of emotions and direction. With a slightly tighter rein on the deployment of his research and a less contrived narrative structure, his next books should be excellent additions to the historical crime genre.

Sarah Hilary is an award-winning short story author, currently working on a debut crime novel.

Reviewed by Sarah Hilary, August 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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