Monday 7 September 2015

Book Review: The Infidel Stain by M J Carter

In The Strangler Vine, M J Carter introduces her two fictional detectives Blake and Avery, an unlikely pairing who meet in 1830s Calcutta during the heyday of the East India Company. Unwillingly, they become embroiled in a mission to rescue renowned poet and national hero Xavier Mountstuart from a band of Thugs; an adventure which sees them travel deep into India's outback before eventually earning each other's grudging respect.

Carter's second book, The Infidel Stain, finds this mismatched duo returned to Victorian England some four years later. In 1841, Captain Avery, having resigned his commission after a tour of Afghanistan, is taking his first ever train journey from his home in Devon to the festering streets of London. An outsider's viewpoint makes him the ideal narrator; descended from comfortable Tory landowning stock, he is simultaneously dazzled by the wealth and innovation but shocked by the immorality and destitution he finds there. His less than ecstatic reunion with the always-inscrutable Special Inquiry Agent Blake quickly draws him further into the seamier side of the capital, as they are retained by Viscount Allington (a pious reformer loosely based on the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury) to look into the grisly murders of two back-street printers.

The newly-formed police force is mysteriously reluctant to investigate and although the victims are soon uncovered as small-scale peddlers of pornography, this doesn't dish up a satisfying enough explanation. The murders continue and it seems radical politics may be tied up with the crimes.

The Chartists, in seeking suffrage for all men, are divided about whether violent physical force can be justified and at odds with the Anti-Corn-Law Leaguers, a group of rich northern manufacturers campaigning for the repeal of the price-fixing Corn Laws. Here are shades of Middlemarch - but, what do they have in common with an earlier collective of fiercely atheist revolutionaries or 'infidels', inspired by the French revolution and the works of Thomas Paine? It is in investigating these links, often at peril to their personal safety, that Blake and Avery begin to piece together the answers.

Poverty is exemplified by the waif-like figure of young Matty Horner; an orphan selling winter cress in the streets to scrape a living for herself and her younger brother, earning enough when she can to send him for a rudimentary education at the 'ragged school'. Matty found the body of the second murder victim and Avery is philanthropically tempted to take her under his wing. But, when he attempts to buy food for her, Matty proves herself to be by far the more streetwise - as she has to be to survive:
 'Oh Captain, you're a babe-in-arms'
'I am sorry' I said, disappointed. 'Have I done wrong?'
'The orange. It's no good.' She took my hand and pressed it into the skin. 'See? Like a sponge. It's been boiled. Coster trick. They do it to the old ones - makes them swell up - but if we opened it, all the juice'd be gone.'
And so, the exotic sub-continental romance of Carter's debut novel is replaced by a much harder-nosed reality in The Infidel Stain. But, just as cleverly plotted, it is no less enjoyable for that; despite being a work of fiction (Carter, after years of non-fiction writing, declared 'it was brilliant to make stuff up!') The Infidel Stain feels as though its language is redolent of its time.

Each paragraph is steeped in research and every character drawn from history; Henry Mayhew, one of the founders of Punch magazine has a significant part to play, as does Richard Carlile, forgotten hero of the fight for a British free press. Even Dickens has a walk-on part.

Blake and Avery are easily cast as a detective double act in the mould of Holmes and Watson, but I can't hep thinking this is a rather lazy association to make. Carter's novels are layered with Victorian complexity, meticulously researched, sublimely plotted and completely engrossing in their own right. In her acknowledgements, she gives special thanks to her husband John Lanchester for counselling her to 'take out the boring bits'; in The Infidel Stain she has successfully followed his advice.

The Infidel Stain is published in the UK by Fig Tree, many thanks to them for my review copy. Photos courtesy of The Telegraph.

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