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Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Infidel Stain by M. J. Carter

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 432 pages, $27 (c2015, US Ed. 2016)

Goodbye to the exotic landscapes and people of India in the mid-1800s where M. J. Carter’s first book in the Blake and Avery series, “The Strangler Vine,” was based. Hello to the bleak, poverty-ridden, misery-inducing crowded streets and dirty alleyways of London’s Soho/St. Giles/Covent Garden neighborhoods. Children especially have hopeless, hungry, shameful lives. The adults have had hard compromises to make in order to survive and worse choices if they have families. Charles Dickens would recognize this seedy part of London, and in fact he makes a non-speaking cameo. Unfortunately, after the colorful Edgar-nominated “The Strangler Vine,” this sequel is a little bland, but M. J. Carter has a good way with presenting historical events clothed in a thought-provoking mystery.

We take so much for granted in our technologically plush current time, even though poverty, abuse, and slavery still exist in our “first world.” In M. J. Carter’s story, the majority of people in Great Britain are disenfranchised, the power held by a minority of people born to the right families. Cheap labor to run the ruling class’s enterprises, people for whom there usually is no legal recourse, people who are one precarious step away from the legendarily odious poorhouse. The “blue bastards,” the police force, are not on their side for the most part.

All this becomes obvious when a printer is murdered. There are many printers in the area, most of whom struggle to make a living. Sometimes they are obliged to print forbidden material. Was his job related to the horrendous way that Nat Wedderburn was murdered? Mutilated, gutted, covered in ink, a most unsavory end. His body was discovered by a young girl, a street urchin Wedderburn and his family sometimes sheltered in the print shop under their home. Matty is streetsmart, has some learning, and is doomed to an early death unless a miracle happens.

Lord Allington is an aristocrat who is using his money and influence to make things better for the poor. As he and his sister are evangelicals, he also wants to save their souls. (By the way, Carter begins her book with this explanation of “infidel”: “In the first half of the nineteenth century, ‘infidels’ were political radicals with atheist and republican beliefs. They were regarded by the government as dangerous revolutionaries.”) Religion plays a role in Carter’s story. It is to her credit that she presents  societal issues without losing the dramatic story of the murders.

Carter has chosen to have young Captain Avery, late of India and Afghanistan, represent the unsullied middle class. He is clueless about the conditions of the poor. He is fallible, judgmental, hot-tempered, and class conscious. Although Jeremiah Blake’s past is a mystery, he has a deep knowledge of the rough areas in town. When Theophillus Collinson, their former superior in India, reunites them after three years to solve the printers’ (yes, there are other printers) deaths at the request of Lord Allington, their relationship springs back into form. That is, Blake is mysterious and imperious; Avery is befuddled and harumphing.

In a mere 432 pages, Carter intensely examines a slice of London life, presents the pressing social and political issues of the time, and still manages to present a coherent mystery. 

See my review of the first book, "The Strangler Vine."

1 comment:

  1. Just read the Strangler Vine. I think the setting of this new one is not as intriguing to me. But I might just pick it up.