Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders by Mick Finlay
It is a bitter winter in 1896 and a cold and brutal time in London for William Arrowood for this fourth murder mystery. As ever, the story is narrated by the faithful, resourceful and loyal Norman Barnett, whose insight into the situations they face may not be as incisive as “the guvnor”, but who is very useful in a fight. As in the previous books, this is not genteel Victorian life and subtle criminal enquiries, but a dirty and basic city where women, men and children had very little, and survival was often the only priority. Some lived a little better, with money for treats and at Christmas time, outings. This is the setting for the job that Arrowood has taken on, to earn a few shillings. Two women and two babies live with him in a tangle of relationships resulting from the events as recorded in the previous novels, and there are other friendships and obligations that overlap into this book. It definitely works as a standalone book, with self-contained themes and events that make the most of the settings and memorable characters. I really enjoyed this book and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.
This novel revolves around the arrival in London of a group of African travellers. They have been apparently brought by a showman, Bruno Capaldi, to become exhibits in his show of Wonders alongside other human curiosities. They have escaped from his control and are hiding in a Quaker Meeting House, where they have sought sanctuary. Mr Fowler, a leading Quaker, is concerned that they are in danger of discovery, and hires Arrowood and Barnett to guard them. Only one of the group speaks any English, and it becomes apparent that they are concealing secrets. When an attack happens, Detective Inspector Napper is brought in, and despite the publicity surrounding the murders, he is forced to ask Arrowood for help in discovering what is really going on. Arrowood agrees with the prospect of reward as well as concern for the people who are apparently adrift in a dangerous city. He is also mindful of his need to help support his wife Isabel and sister Ettie, especially when their babies become ill. Being a Private Investigator will call on all his skills as an investigator, as well as encountering the sheer physical challenges of London life.
As ever this book is vivid and full of detail, an immersive read of realistic characters who are introduced and maintained with careful detail. There is an immense amount of research behind this book in order to make the streets of London come so alive, and there is real skill in blending in all the details so they become natural. There is real depth to this novel, as alongside the main mystery there are subplots of Arrowood’s complicated family arrangements and Barnett’s own feelings, as well as other friends such as Lewis and Willoughby. This book also poses questions of the nature of Britain’s colonial behaviour and what happens when those native people affected rebel or come to Britain. I found it offered fascinating insights into a world where people with visible differences were put on display, and the effects that would have. This novel opens a world of realities of late Victorian life that are not always the subject of historical fiction. I recommend this book, and indeed others from the series, as gripping and enthralling novels of London life and rewarding mysteries.