This is a recent edition of a book that was first published by Severn House in 2012, and was the first in a continuing series featuring an unusual Metropolitan Police detective, Inspector Silas Quinn. We are in 1914, a few months before the outbreak of The Great War. I have reviewed two others in the series, and the links are below.
The White Feather Killer (2019
The Music Box Enigma (2020)
Is Summon Up The Blood any good, even if it is a reissue? An absolute and unequivocal “Yes!” from me. Quinn is an intriguing fellow. never at ease socially, particularly with women. He seems driven by his own demons – if demons they are – as he seeks to investigate the crimes that other men on the payroll of The Metropolitan Police can’t fathom (or perhaps can’t be bothered with) His superior officers realise that Quinn has a certain talent, but one that does not fit well into the the day-to-day operations of the force. So, he has been shunted off into a siding where he can pursue his own lines of investigation, but not make himself an irritant to the establishment. Quinn is The Special Crimes Department of Scotland Yard and with the assistance of his sergeants Inchcape and Macadam he ploughs his own furrow.
When a rent boy is found dead, his throat cut from ear to ear, there is initially little interest by the police, as the lad is just assumed to have paid the price for being in a risky line of business, but when the post mortem reveals that he has had every drop of blood drained from his body, Quinn is summoned and told to investigate. After a droll episode where Quinn decides to pose as a man smitten by “the love that dare not speak its name”, and blunders around in a dodgy bookshop, but he does find out that the dead youngster was called Jimmy, and had links to a ‘gentleman’s club’ where he would find men appreciative of his talents.
After the episode in the bookshop, Quinn decides to take things one step further and, armed with a distinctive brand of cigarettes favoured by the homosexual demi-monde, he sets out to impersonate a potential customer of Jimmy and his friends. Let’s just say that this does not go well, but he manages to emulate the News of The World reporters of later decades, who used to pass themselves off as punters in brothels, strip clubs, drug dens and the rest, and would then close the resultant exposé with the words, “I made an excuse and left.“
There are more deaths among what were known as renters, and Quinn’s frustration mounts. One of the enigmas is that the victims each possessed a silver cigarette case, inscribed with what appear to be literary quotes: it is not until Quinn learns that they all come from De Profundis, Oscar Wilde’s letter, written in Reading Gaol, to his lover Bosie, and subsequently published, that pieces of the proverbial jigsaw start to fit together.
Thankfully, Morris makes no attempt to get in the politics of homosexuality and the law: his characters simply inhabit the world in which he puts them, and their thoughts, words and deeds resonate authentically. In 1914, remember, the trial of Oscar Wilde and the Cleveland Street Scandal were still part of folk memory. It’s an astonishing thought that had Morris been writing about similar murders, fifty years later in 1964, virtually nothing would have changed – think of the scandals involving such ‘big names’ as Tom Driberg, Robert Boothby and Ronnie Kray, and how their lives have been written up by such novelists as Jake Arnott, John Lawton and James Barlow.
As ever, Shakespeare said it first, but RN Morris has written a chilling and convincing murder mystery with an impeccably researched historical background. The book is an intriguing – and sometimes unnerving – mixture of grim violence, gallows humour, literary research, sexual degradation – and old fashioned detective work. Silas Quinn’s London of Spring 1914, blithely ignorant of the horrors that were to begin later in the year, is hypnotic and addictive. Summon Up The Blood is published by Canelo, and is out now.