I am a huge fan of MJ Trow’s books. We have some things in common. I don’t share his gifts as a writer but we did go to the same school and we both had long careers as teachers. We certainly share the same acerbic views of the bean counters and politically correct apologists who run schools these days. If you want first hand knowledge of these miserable characters, then read any of Trow’s wonderful Peter ‘Mad’ Maxwell series. They are great entertainment – very, very funny, but with a serious side, too.
Like his creator, Peter Maxwell has left the chalk face and retired to his Isle of Wight home, but Trow’s brilliance as a historian still shines in the Grand and Batchelor series, of which Last Nocturne is the seventh. Reviews of some of its predecessors are here, and the new book has the usual dazzling mix of real-life characters – try Oscar Wilde, GF Watts, John Ruskin and James McNeill Whistler for starters – knockabout humour and murder most foul.
Grand & Batchelor are private investigators based in 1870s London and – much to the relief of James Batchelor, who is a terrible traveller – Last Nocturne has its feet securely on home soil. Grand is from a wealthy New England family, and fought bravely for the Union in The War Between The States, while Batchelor is a journalist by trade. Murder – what else? – is the name of the game in this book, and the victims are, you might say ‘on the game’. Cremorne Gardens were popular pleasure gardens beside the River Thames in Chelsea, but after dark, the ‘pleasure’ sought by its denizens was not of the innocent kind. ‘Ladies of the Night’ are being murdered – poisoned with arsenic – but the killer doesn’t interfere with them, as the saying goes, but instead leaves books by their dead bodies.
As the two investigators become involved in the police hunt for the bookish poisoner, they are still doing the day job which, in this case, is being employed by Grand’s fellow countryman Mr Whistler – he of the painting of his mum – to dig out any dirt they can find on art critic John Ruskin who, ‘as any fule no’ (to quote Nigel Molesworth) wrote, of one of Whistler’s paintings, “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”
Trow has great fun with John Ruskin’s back story, particularly his disastrous marriage to Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray , and the disastrous first night of their honeymoon when he was so traumatised by her luxuriant pubic hair that he was unable to continue with his marital duties. The Pre-Raphaelite painter John Millais clearly had no such qualms, as he married Effie in 1855, and they produced eight children.
The search for the killer, however, continues, but G & B, along with the police, remain mystified. They even resort to a seance involving the well-known society medium, Miss Florence Cook, whose reputation has gone before her:
“The murmurs from the guests were mixed, but Florence was used to that. Speaking for herself, she couldn’t really see why people were always so surprised when she was from time to time exposed as a fraud. What did they expect? That the dead would turn up on cue to talk to people about the other side? Why would Uncle Norman come back to a seedy scullery in Acton to tell his niece that it was all very l, he was at peace, and he’d been talking to Beethoven only the other day, who told him to tell little Bessie to carry on with her piano lessons?”
Eventually G & B solve the mystery, but rather more by accident than design and the book comes to a dramatic and entertaining conclusion. Last Nocturne is published by Severn House, and is available in hardback and as a Kindle.