We are in London and it is the Spring of 1862. William Ewart Gladstone is two years into his second spell as British Prime Minister, The Irish Question dominates domestic politics and the campaigning journalist WT Stead is deputy editor of the evening newspaper The Pall Mall Gazette. Among his journalists is Alec Lonsdale, younger son of the Vicar of Raunds and brother of the prominent barrister, James Lonsdale.
Alec, on his way home from an unsuccessful attempt to interview the director of the Zoological Gardens, chances upon a very public emergency. A terraced house is ablaze, and its occupant – a Mr Donovan – has perished in the fire. When his body is hauled from the wreckage his head has been destroyed, but further examination reveals the astonishing fact that part of his brain – the cerebrum – has been surgically removed.
Simon Beaufort provides an exhilarating and madcap journey through the contrasting mileus of Victorian London. We experience gentlemen’s clubs with their subtle ambience of brandy and fine cigars, the visceral stench of low-life pubs and doss houses and the clatter of the hot lead printing presses of a vibrant daily newspaper. Lonsdale – with the assistance of Hulda Friedrichs, a fiercely independent early feminist journalist – painstakingly uncovers a nightmarish plot hatched by scientists who are obsessed with eugenics, and believe that the future of the human race depends on selective breeding and the suppression of ‘the undeserving poor’.
Alec Lonsdale is a thoroughly admirable hero who is as handy with his fists as he is with his pen. Most of the staff at the Pall Mall Gazette are actual historical figures, beautifully researched and described. We have gore, mortuary scenes, fights a-plenty, scrupulous period detail and also a sly sense of fun as we observe the elaborate formal minuet of courtship, particularly between Alec and his future sister-in-law Anne. Eventually the conspiracy is exposed by Alec and Hulda, but not before we have an exuberant reprise of the ‘mad scientist’ trope.
Simon Beaufort? Simon is a ‘they’ rather than a ‘he’. Beau Riffenburgh is a Californian born and bred, an expert in polar exploration, and an American Football coach. His wife – and writing partner – is none other than Liz Cruwys, better known as Susanna Gregory, best-selling author of many historical novels featuring medieval investigator Matthew Bartholemew. Mind Of A Killer is published by Severn House, came out in hardback just before Christmas 2017, and is now available in Kindle.