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by Paul Emanuelli
Mystery Press, February 2012
347 pages
9.99 GBP
ISBN: 0752465546

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Imagine Bath in 1850 and you think of elegant ladies and top-hatted gentlemen making their way to the Pump Rooms, the Theatre Royal, concerts or balls and strolling down the elegant Georgian crescents. But behind this facade was another world where a fifth of its population lived in filth and squalor, often as many as a dozen families to a house, preyed on by vicious gangsters and loan sharks, frequently without adequate food or access to even the most basic medical help. Crime and drunkenness was rife and suicide frequent. Decent society pretended Avon Street, with its gaming dens, brothels and low pubs and its inhabitants, mostly unemployed Irish labourers, jobless since the completion of the railways, simply did not exist.

In a surprisingly moral book, as much a social indictment of Victorian hypocrisy and bigotry as adventure tale, Paul Emanuelli uses carefully researched facts and a well tried plot to produce a compelling read.

James Daunton is a gentleman and lawyer. In polite company he plays down his Irish roots, but a predilection for drink and gambling lead him to a point where he will lose his place in society. His involvement with a Catholic priest, a childhood friend, brings him into conflict with the city's most powerful criminal, which escalates when he accidentally kills one of the gang boss's men. He discovers the man he thought his best friend is a blackmailer, cheat and conman who has robbed him of everything and set him up for the attack which led to the death. Partly by chance he recruits a small team of friends and allies, the priest, an American sailor, a doctor struggling to make his mark, a struggling actress and a former safecracker he once defended against a bogus charge. All have two things in common a secret they are unwilling to talk about and a desire to break the gangster's grip. But to do this, they must themselves go outside the law.

The jacket blurb describes the book as a tale of murder, but this story of a man forced by circumstance to learn to trust in an atmosphere of betrayal and to dig deep to discover his true self is almost a West Country Western, its plot owing much to the moral stance of High Noon, as Daunton discovers the truth of the statement: Inheritance and upbringing might make us who we are, but it is the decisions we make that determine what we become.

A careful and selective use of locations and historical fact many of the characters actually existed blended with believable action and an impressive understanding of Victorian life with all its faults and contradictions and an ability to put them into words make this a serious, but worthwhile and enjoyable read.

One caveat. No doubt smaller publishing houses need to watch costs, but a small typeface does this otherwise outstanding book no favours. Many readers will undoubtedly find what should be a cracking read unnecessarily hard work as a result.

John Cleal is a former soldier and journalist with an interest in medieval history. He divides his time between France and England.

Reviewed by John Cleal, October 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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