The Butchered Man by Harriet Smart

The Butchered Man by Harriet Smart.

I’m not a big fan of the whole bonnets and frocks obsession that seems to run through a great deal of both TV and literature and I tend to steer clear of historical dramas of both kinds because it seems for me to get bogged down to easily in eye candy of the sartorial kind. I have about as much fashion sense (or interest for that matter) as a whelk so I am wary of period fiction as much of what I have read spends what feels like weeks describing precisely how fetching someone looked in their new gown.

However, I like a good murder and the more brutal, the better. I’ve grown tired though of the complex and confusing contemporary murder lit, where the star of the show is forensic science and every one else is a bit part player. So finding Harriet Smart’s The Butchered Man was a real treat.

Here’s the synopsis:

When a  mutilated corpse is found in a ditch outside the ancient city
walls of Northminster, the Chief Constable, Major Giles Vernon,
and his new police surgeon, Felix Carswell, are drawn into a
complex murder enquiry.

Northminster is  a cathedral town under siege from industrialisation, a  population explosion and all the attendant horrors of poverty,
disease and crime. Appointed only two years ago, Major Vernon
has transformed the old city watch into a modern police force.
This challenge has been a necessary distraction from his
troubled personal life – his wife is now in an asylum and the
vulnerable Giles is in emotional limbo.

Newly qualified  and energetic, Felix Carswell is determined to make his own way  in the world, on his own terms. The bastard son of prominent  Whig politician, Lord Rothborough, Felix was raised by a
Scottish clergyman and his wife. However Rothborough has grand
plans for his natural son and will not let him be. Felix suffers
from divided loyalties and a confused identity – he is far
more like his autocratic father than he would like to admit.

Together the two  men set out to solve the mystery of the Butchered Man and  although they are forced in the course of it to face hard facts  about themselves, they also forge a friendship that will serve
them well in future investigations.”

Grand, eh?  Combine the best of CSI logic (though set in a time when  virtually all the science we take for granted is unknown) , the
characterisation quirks of Brother Cadfael, and a dash of Film
Noir and you have a thoroughly enjoyable romp through an old
fashioned murder mystery with twists and turns enough to keep
armchair detectives guessing. There’s deep motives at play, some
of the very deepest but in some way what endears this book to me
most is the relationship that grows between the two main
characters. It’s masterfully done, steering clear of the typical
father-figure mentoring it could so easily have slid into, and
steering equally clear of the somewhat suspect bro-mance
scenario a lesser writer would have gone for. This is a
partnership of equals, but the men themselves struggle to accept
this and watching their struggles to work together is adds a
frisson of conflict and friction to the mix and stops it getting
too cosy. 

If you’re a fan of detective fiction then you’ll probably love this tale. If you love historical dramas, then I suspect you’ll also love it
too. Lovers of bonnets and frocks will be happy enough too,
though there wasn’t so much that people like me started yawning.

So if you fancy a taste of something a little different from your usual  fare, then pick up a copy of The Butchered Man either at Amazon or via Harriet’s own website. ( see below)

3 thoughts on “The Butchered Man by Harriet Smart

  1. I admit to having a minor recoil from the whole historical fiction bandwagon but maybe this is one to give a try.

    Although this really belongs to your Susan Howatch strand (clerical fiction), as you’re recommending books, I wondered if many people have come across Phil Rickman and his ‘Merrily Watkins’ series of novels. The main character is a fairly recently ordained woman priest who deals with some of the more uncomfortable aspects of spiritual life when, in the second novel, she is appointed diocesan exorcist. This is not your typical blood-and-thunder horror genre – events are rooted in the everyday and characters are rounded and sensitively portrayed. Set on the Welsh borders close to where I live, the backdrop to each novel is a different area of Herefordshire, straying sometimes further afield (as in the harrowing Fred West Gloucestershire investigation). Although each book is a stand-alone, I found that I inevitably went back and read the whole series end to end, as many characters re-occur and feel more like family when you know their story from the beginning.


    • You’re the third person to recommend this series of books so I guess I need to look them up. My issue with anyone writing about church/clergy is that quite often they get it wrong in ways that those who’ve not lived that life will not spot, but those of us who have lived in a rectory will, and get irritated by. For instance, diocesan exorcist is a post most diocese keep discreet about but the appointee is almost always a priest of many years experience; I’ve been friends with a fair few and to have a relatively newly ordained priest appointed is just not something that occurs in the normal run of things. But I shall reserve judgement till I have read them
      Thanks for putting me on to this, Gill. Much appreciated.


  2. Thanks for that Viv! Very kind. And can i also endorse Merrily Watkins? I am only on the first one (Wine of Angels) and though I can take on board your potential criticism that it is not too likely she would be appointed so swiftly, I would say that Rickman is good at making things plausible. The books have a lot of charm but never veer into the cosy – he writes about people and their relationships with great honesty and insight.


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