At 731 pages, this is a doorstopper of a book. I usually hesitate to read such lengthy tomes for fear of wasting my much-treasured reading time. I finally decided to take the plunge because this novel was nominated for the 2016 Giller Prize. I understand why it made the shortlist.
This is a great example of Victorian detective fiction. Set in 1885 London, it tells the intertwined stories of two men. William Pinkerton, son of the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, is in the city looking for Edward Shade, an elusive master criminal whom William’s father never managed to arrest. Now that his father is dead, William has picked up the chase. He manages to find Charlotte Reckitt, a supposed acquaintance of Shade’s, but she takes a fatal jump into the Thames; then, to William’s surprise, her dismembered body washes up.
The second protagonist is Adam Foole, a thief and con-artist, who also travels to London to find Charlotte, a woman he loves though he hasn’t seen her for a decade. He contacts William and the two become allies in searching for the truth about Charlotte’s fate. The two men eventually come to realize that their lives have overlapped in the past, especially during the American civil war.
This book is a mystery thriller; there are certainly a number of questions that need to be answered: Who is Edward Shade? Is he dead or alive? Does he even exist? Why was Allan Pinkerton never able to find him? Why does William become obsessed with finding Shade? How/why did Charlotte, after her leap into the river, end up dismembered and with shorn hair?
Suspense is abundant. Besides the questions, there is danger for both men. There’s a cat and mouse game that will have the reader cheering for one side and then another. Foreshadowing is used frequently: “It was, he would reflect later, a most impressive performance” (645) and “it was a thing he had felt before and he knew by this that something that day would go wrong” (672). Dramatic irony is also used: the reader knows what William and Adam are hiding from each other.
The author excels in creating atmosphere. There are detailed descriptions of perpetually foggy and grimy cobblestoned streets. Scenes are set in soot-filled fog and dank alleys and opium dens and séance parlours and filthy sewers. One can see the squalor and smell the stench and feel the cold rain.
There are several lengthy flashbacks to the pasts of both William and Adam. It is clear that the two were shaped by their pasts. William’s troubled relationship with his father certainly influences his behaviour: “William feared him and loved him and loathed him every day of his life yet too not a day passed that he did not want to be him” (151). Adam had a more difficult childhood and his experiences, including his relationship with Charlotte, motivate his actions.
Characterization is a strong element. Both protagonists are fully developed. They are flawed people but they have redeeming qualities. There are several minor characters like Molly and Japheth Fludd who also capture the reader’s attention.
I found this an engrossing read. The flashbacks sometimes slow down the pace, but they are important in explaining characters and events in the present. Themes are not always developed strongly, but the book is a very entertaining read that would make a great movie.