Jack Callan’s debut novel Smoke Chase introduces John Chase, a six foot, sixteen stone army veteran of colonial wars, now working with the embryonic Special Branch, a police department set up to combat the violent threat of Fenian revolutionaries in late 19th century London. It is the winter of 1885 and, as always, Chase is operating very much undercover, dressed as a working man.
After a long night shift, Chase is having his breakfast in a cafe when he is alerted to a bomb going off in the vicinity of nearby Tobacco Dock. When he arrives on the scene he finds a dead man – or, at least, what remains of him – but in what is clearly a set-up he is pounced on by a number of police officers, and hustled off in manacles to 26 Old Jewry, the HQ of The City of London Police.
Despite providing his warrant card, Chase – and a union official called Burns are taken to a rotting prison hulk moored in the Thames. Chase soon worked out that he and Burns are being targeted because they have come too close to a huge web of corruption involving a gang of bent import-export fraudsters aided and abetted by senior police officers.
Chase overpowers his guards and escapes to the shore where he begins to plot the downfall of Mordecai and Elisha Smithson, the gangsters who are in charge of the smuggling ring. We have pretty much everything served up from this point on including, in no particular order, rape, torture, Russian thugs, suicide, enough stabbings and shootings to fill a morgue, families being kidnapped and depraved assassins. Participants fall like flies, even unto the last paragraph of the last page
John Chase is rather like a modern-day Bulldog Drummond, and the novel, despite the gore, harks back to a more innocent time when characters like Dick Barton overcame even the most beastly assailant – “with one bound he was free!”
Jack Callan has certainly done his homework, however. The topographical background – London’s dockland when it was it was a rough and tumble working environment, the Lea Valley and the sordid nooks and crannies of East London – is enthusiastically painted,and we even have fleeting acquaintance with the music hall singer Bessie Bellwood and the women’s rights campaigners Annie Besant and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.
To borrow a cliché beloved of football commentators, Jack Callan leaves nothing in the changing room. Smoke Chase has enough blood and thunder to satisfy the most demanding addict. Callan’s debut novel is published by Matador and is out now.
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