Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Last Days of Newgate - by Andrew Pepper

London, 1829. Pyke is one of these dying breed. The Bow Street Runners are about to be replaced by the Metropolitan Police. In the dark, vice ridden alleys of the city Pyke attempts to bring villains to justice. Yet like many of the Runners, Pyke is also involved in criminal activities of his own. With the lines between right and wrong so blurred it's no wonder that Peel wants to see the Bow Street Runners disbanded. Yet is he above using criminal methods himself to see them thoroughly discredited? Pyke is drawn into a plot to remove the Bow Street Runners altogether, inflame tensions between Protestants and Catholics and bring the city to its knees. Can Pyke get to the bottom of this mystery? With every conceivable spanner thrown into the works, including being framed for murder, the pressure is on and Pyke must get to the truth before the Hangman puts the noose around his neck.

Pyke is definitely an anti-hero. Despite supposedly bringing law and order to the city he is not above thieving and swindling. Out to get what ever he can and always putting himself first. At the start of the book you see him being offered a private commission, something that would be considered completely and utterly corrupt in today's society. He is certainly not the first person you would expect to be so appalled by the gruesome murder towards the beginning of the book that he feels compelled to investigate it. Yet as the story unfolds we begin to realise that despite his many flaws there is a flicker of human decency and compassion. You find yourself wanting Pyke to succeed, despite hating what he gets up to.

This is a very dark book and not for the faint hearted. There's lots of murder, highway robbery, sex with prostitutes, the realities of Newgate Prison, fighting and filth. The very graphic murder of a young family in the first few chapters really is horrific and even Pyke, who has seen it all, is made ill by it. I don't think this book could ever be made into a tea time drama for the BBC! I have to say that I don't normally go in for books this dark, but I felt I needed to find out what on earth was going on!

I don't know if I want to read the next book though. I found Pyke's various relationships and his problems with women difficult to sympathise with. If I'm honest he's the sort of man I would hope never to fall in love with. His loveless relationship with Lizzie is heart breaking and you keep wishing he could just be honest with her and himself.

Pyke is a well constructed, complex character. No one is ever squeaky clean and you can forgive some of what Pyke gets up to because of his circumstances. He's a very real character, it's almost as if Andrew Pepper could be writing his biography.

Unfortunately I know very little about the pre-Victorian 19th century. I've come across the Bow Street Runners before in Deryn Lake's John Rawling's series set in the late 18th century. The author has pulled upon some well known historic facts such as the awful conditions of Newgate prison and the work of Elizabeth Fry. The introduction of the Metropolitan Police Force is also based on fact. The religious tensions are probably very accurate too, as even today there are still tensions between Catholics and Protestants in some parts of Ireland. I think it's harder for authors to get away without researching the period they set their historical fiction in nowadays so they are less likely to be inaccurate.
If you enjoy historical crime fiction it is definitely worth giving this book a try, particularly if you are wanting to expand your tastes. It is a dark book and there is a lot of trials and tribulations so its best avoided if you're looking for an easy, light hearted read. I still don't know quite how I feel about the book (which will be reflected in my rating), but I would still urge people to give it a go.

*3 stars*

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