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
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)