The publicity blurb says, “London Society takes their problems to Sherlock Holmes. Everyone else goes to Arrowood.” This is, indeed, a very different world to that of the occupant of 221B Baker Street.
“The Guvnor lived in rooms behind the pudding shop on Coin Street, just down the road from Waterloo Station. There were five of them there. His sister Ellie and wife Isabel slept in the bedroom with their two babies, Mercy and Leopold. Arrowood had a mattress on the parlour floor. Since I’d last been there, the Christmas decorations had been put out.: some holly and twigs strung up to nails on the wall, a few painted baubles hanging from the mantel, a little model of a manger with the baby Jesus on the dresser. The babies slept in their boxes on the table.”
The narrator is Norman Barnett, William Arrowood’s equally impoverished assistant. Neither man is a stranger to tragedy. Barnett’s wife, ‘Mrs B’ died some months previously, while Isabel Arrowood left her husband to live with a richer man in Cambridge. He died from cancer, leaving her with his baby in her womb. She has since been taken back by her husband, but all is far from well between them. We are in the final years of the 19th century, a few decades since Gustave Doré produced his memorable – and haunting – engravings of the darker side of London, but Arrowood’s London is hardly a shade lighter. Poverty, death and illness are everywhere – in the next room, or just around the corner.
The plot has the lurid and fantastical quality of a magic lantern show. Four black South Africans have escaped the grinding poverty and oppression of their homeland and somehow made their way to Europe. They have been hired to part of a circus cum freakshow run by an unscrupulous showman called Capaldi. Billed to perform as Zulus, the quartet have escaped. Capaldi, having fed and housed them in anticipation of capitalising on their curiosity value to his audiences, is aggrieved and wants them back. They have taken refuge with Mr Fowler, a well-meaning Quaker who works with The Aborigines’ Protection Society 1
Fowler hires Arrowood and Barnett for a few days to act as night-time bodyguards to the Africans who are sheltering in the Quaker Meeting House, but when they arrive for duty, they find Fowler shot dead and one of the Africans, Musa, tied up, his face battered, and dead from strangulation. Inspector Napper of the Metropolitan Police takes charge of the murder enquiry but, short staffed, he asks Arrowood for help. The finger of suspicion points at Capaldi and his enforcers, but life is never that simple.
As the case becomes ever more complex, Arrowood faces professional failure, but tragedy looms at home. Finlay has created a complex character. He is physically unprepossessing, overweight, a face like a bloodhound and he is a martyr to piles. When, in order to earn the money for some quack medicine for one of the poorly babies back in Coin Street, he is forced to deputise for one of Capaldi’s freaks – The Baboon Woman – I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
There is a rather melancholy soundtrack to the plot, including The Violet I Plucked From Mother’s Grave, reputedly a song frequently sung by the Ripper’s last victim, Mary Lane Kelly. Finlay’s research into the darker aspects of late Victorian life is impressive, particularly in the kinds of medicine available to the general public. Two such potions that probably killed as many as they cured were Godfrey’s Cordial and Black Drops2
Eventually, and with fatal consequences for more than one of the participants, the case is solved, but to no-one’s particular satisfaction. It being late December, there is barely a chink of daylight on the London Streets, and this is echoed by the sombre mood of the narrative. I don’t suppose there is such a thing as Victorian Noir, but if there were, it is here. It’s superbly written, and both chills and grips like a London fog. Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders is published by HQ, an imprint of Harpr Collins, and is out now. Author Mick Finlay has an informative website. Click on his image (right) to go there.
1.The Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS) was an international human rights organisation founded in 1837, to ensure the health and well-being and the sovereign, legal and religious rights of the indigenous peoples while also promoting the civilisation of the indigenous people who were subjected under colonial powers, in particular the British Empire.
2. Godfrey’s Cordial was a patent medicine, containing laudanum (tincture of opium) in a sweet syrup, which was commonly used as a sedative to quieten infants and children in Victorian England. Black Drop was a 19th-century medicine made of opium, vinegar, spices, often sweetened with sugar and made into something resembling a boiled sweet.