The Island is the latest episode in the eventful partnership between two gentleman detectives in Victorian London. James Batchelor is a former journalist, a ‘gentleman’ in manners and intelligence, if not by upbringing, while his colleague Matthew Grand is an American former soldier, and scion of a very wealthy patrician New Hampshire family. We first met them in The Blue and the Grey (2014), when Grand – who has recently served with the victorious Army of The Potomac – comes to London in pursuit of one of those who conspired in the murder of Abraham Lincoln on 15 April 1865.
It is now the spring of 1873, and Grand is treating his colleague to a holiday in American, in the shape of an invitation to his sister’s wedding. Poor Batchelor, however is, at best, an indifferent sea voyager but, after eleven emetic days on board the Frisia, the pair eventually arrive safely in New York, having left their London house in the somewhat clumsy hands of their housekeeper, Mrs Rackstraw, who is somewhat less discreet and high minded than another lady fulfilling a similar function to another pair of gentlemen a mile or so across town in the busy thoroughfare of Baker Street.
On their journey north to New Hampshire, Grand and Batchelor pick up Edward Latham, a New York Times hack, who has blagged a wedding invitation in order to track down a participant in the recent financial corruption scandal known as the Tammany Hall affair – and Grand’s Uncle Josiah, who is disturbingly rich, but often – and equally disturbingly – drunk. The wedding guests duly reach the settlement of Rye and the palatial house causes Batchelor to gasp in admiration, despite being assured by Grand that it is little more than a weekend retreat compared to their main establishment.
A few words in praise of the author. Meiron Trow (right) is one of the most erudite and entertaining writers in the land. Over thirty years ago he began his tongue in cheek series rehabilitating the much-put-upon Inspector Lestrade, and I loved every word. I then became hooked on his Maxwell series, featuring a very astute crime-solving history teacher who, while eschewing most things modern, manages to be hugely respected by the sixth-formers (Year 12 and 13 students in new money) in his charge, while managing to terrify and alarm the younger ‘teaching professionals’ who run his school. I was well into the Maxwell series before I realised that MJ Trow and I had two things (at least) in common. Firstly, he went to the same school as I did, although I have to confess he was a couple of years ‘below’ me and would have been dismissed at the time as a pesky ‘newbug’. Secondly, and much more relevant to my love of his Maxwell books, I discovered that we were both senior teachers in state secondary schools, and shared a disgust and contempt for the tick-box mentality characterising the so-called ‘leadership’ of high schools.
I digress, so back to New Hampshire in the early spring of 1873. The guests begin to arrive, and the ‘downstairs’ staff under the stern eye of the enigmatic butler, Waldo Hart, are emulating the proverbial blue-arsed fly. Trow, at this point, gleefully takes the template of the traditional country house mystery, and has his evil way with it. Despite the title of the book, we are not quite in Soldier Island (And Then There Were None) territory, but Rye is far enough from Boston to make sure that when the first murder happens, the real policemen are too far away and too engrossed with their city crime to pay much attention, even when when of the possible suspects is a certain Mr Samuel Langhorne Clemens. (left)
With Martha, Grand’s sister, well and truly hitched to a young man who may well be an utter bounder, and two hatchet-bludgeoned corpses lying in state in the stables, the Boston police eventually arrive in the shape of Chief Savage and Sergeant Roscoe. The amateurs and the professionals regard each other with ill-disguised suspicion, while Trow scatters a healthy basket of Rubrum Clupidae to keep us all guessing. Don’t be misled by Trow’s endless enthusiasm for verbal gags into thinking that this is a ‘cosy’ novel. Far from it. The finale is dark and bloody, and shadows real-life 1873 events on the remote and windswept Smuttynose Island. The Island is published by Severn House and is available now.