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1914

THE MANNEQUIN HOUSE . . . Between the covers

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I do love the mysterious world of Detective Inspector Silas Quinn, RN Morris’s rather distinctive London copper from the 1900s. For reviews of earlier novels Summon Up The Blood, The White Feather Killer and The Music Box Enigma click the links. I say “earlier”, but it’s not that simple, as the Silas Quinn books are being reissued by a new publisher, having coming out a few years ago, but since the events they describe are all from a very narrow time frame, the actual chronology doesn’t matter too much.

MannequinQuinn and his sergeants – Inchball and Macadam – are The Special Crimes Department of the Metropolitan Police. This department has a passing resemblance to Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (Rest In Peace) insofar as the unit has been constructed around the unique talents of its lead investigator. Like Arthur Bryant, Silas Quinn has strange gifts, and is just as likely to exasperate his superior officers as win their praise, but he is a bloody good copper.

It is March 1914, and most of the citizens of London go about their bustling business oblivious to the gathering storm which would break over their heads in just a few months. Blackley’s Emporium is one of the most successful department stores in the city. You can buy anything and everything that is made, mined or grown on God’s earth, and you may even be greeted by the beaming proprietor himself as you walk through the doors. You can even – should you be minded to take a break from spending money – visit the in-house menagerie which is full of weird and exotic creatures.

One of Benjamin Blackley’s most profitable departments is his haute couture fashion house, where (plus ça change) slender young women wearing must-have gowns and fripperies parade in front of not-so-slender older women. Blackley ‘keeps’ – and I use the word advisedly – his slips of things in a suburban house, presided over by a formidable matron. When the most beautiful of these mannequins – Amélie – doesn’t turn up for work, and her room is found locked from the inside, the police are called. Two things happen when the door is eventually opened. First, an enraged Macaque monkey runs screaming from the room and, second, Amélie has a very good excuse for missing work, as she is dead on her bed, strangled with a silk scarf.The subsequent post-mortem examination reveals that the girl may have been raped, and also that she has maintained her desirability as a fashion model by disastrous self-abuse of her body. 

Morris takes the classic ‘locked room’ trope and has his wicked way with it. There is some knockabout comedy in this book, particularly with Quinn’s wildly contrasting underlings Inchball and Macadam, but there is a vein of darker material running through the narrative. Quinn may be a clever copper, but he is also psychologically damaged from a traumatic childhood. The uneasy personal dynamics between fellow lodgers at the house where Quinn sleeps are a signal that the detective is not at ease with other people. It has to be said, that later (already available) Silas Quinn novels shine a revealing light on this situation. There is great fun to be had within the pages of The Mannequin House, but we are never far away from the evil that men (and women) do, and you must be prepared for a rather shocking and violent end to the story.

As ever, Roger Morris gives us a delicious mystery, a totally authentic background and an absorbing book into which we can escape for a few precious hours. The Mannequin House was first published in 2013, but this new paperback edition from Canelo is out now.

Blackleys

SUMMON UP THE BLOOD . . . Between the covers


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.

THE MUSIC BOX ENIGMA . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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Fans of period police procedurals are in for a treat at the end of the month when RN Morris’s distinctive London copper, Chief Superintendent Silas Quinn makes a welcome return. It’s December 1914, and the war that was meant to be over by Christmas is showing only signs of intensifying. DORA – the Defence of The Realm Act – has been enforced, and among the many strictures it imposes on the populace are imprisonment without trial, a ban on publishing any description of war or any news that is likely to cause any conflict between the public and military authorities and, bizarrely, an interdiction on buying rounds in pubs.

MBE coverBut Christmas is coming, and a rather upper-crust choir, The Hampstead Voices, is rehearsing for its seasonal concert, with all proceeds going to Belgian refugees, forced from their homes by the brutal Hun invaders. Directed by Sir Adrian Fonthill, the concert will include not only much-loved carols such as O Little Town of Bethlehem and Adeste Fideles, but choral works by Bizet and Handel. Special guest artistes will include dancers from Ballets Modernes and the distinguished violinist Emile Boland, but the evening will conclude with a performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s A Christmas Greeting, in the presence of the composer himself. It is also believed that Winston Churchill, First Lord of The Admiralty, will be in the audience at University College School on the evening of 24th December.

Silas Quinn may have many qualities, but a musical ear is not one of them, so how does he come to be involved in the doings of The Hampstead Voices? Rehearsals for the concert may not be going too well, perhaps due to the many tenors and basses who have answered the call to arms, but preparations take a distinct downturn when the Director of Music is found dead, slumped at his grand piano, with the sharpened handle of a tuning fork stuck into his ear. As boss of Scotland Yard’s Special Crimes Unit, Quinn is summoned to the scene of this musical murder.

It seems that the late Sir Adrian, despite his musical sensitivities, was not a paragon of virtue. He has a roving eye – and hands – for young sopranos and altos, and has a weakness for gambling which has left him in debt to some very dangerous people. But who stands to benefit from his death? Not those to whom he owes money,surely? A resentful husband, perhaps, who has been cuckolded?

MorrisAs Quinn tries to penetrate the wall of silence thrown up by Fonthill’s widow, his attention is drawn to a mysterious music box sent to Sir Adrian just before his death. When it is wound up and played, however, the resulting tune simply seems – even to Quinn’s tin ear – a haphazard sequence of random notes. But help is at hand. One of the Special Constables from Hampstead Police Station could be said to have an ear for music. He is none other than Sir Edward Elgar, celebrated composer of Salut d’Amour, Variations on an Original Theme and The Dream of Gerontius. Elgar takes the discordant melody and uncovers a message which rveals that Sir Adrian’s death is not to be the last associated with the ill-fated Christmas concert.

RN Morris (above right) gives us an inventive and delightfully improbable conclusion to this very readable novel. If you want something to lose yourself in for a few hours and a diversion to push to one side the misery and discomfort of the lock-down, then you will find nothing better than The Music Box Enigma. It is published by Severn House and will be out in hardback on 30th April.

For a review of an earlier Silas Quinn novel, The White Feather Killer, click here

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