The website CrimeReads has become a veritable cornucopia: a treasure trove of authors, genres, concepts, covering all four corners of the world of detective, mystery, and thriller fiction. Long before this blog came into being, I scoured CrimeReads looking for new books to explore and new authors to follow. It’s how I found out about many of the authors you’ll read about here, including Rachel Howzall Hall and Kellye Garrett.
Martin Edwards has become my newest obsession. I grew up on Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. Later on, I read Ruth Rendell and PD James, favouring the more erudite detective, looking for perhaps the modern Sherlock Holmes. Now, I know no one can take Holmes’ place in the detective fiction Hall of Fame; so much so that many authors, including Anthony Horowitz, continue his adventures for emerging generations, thanks to the BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary. But a lot of authors choose to set their mysteries in a similar era to the aforementioned greats. Mr Edwards is one of them.
Welcome to the strange and unsettling world of Rachel Savernake, a wealthy heiress and amateur sleuth. Set in and around London of the 1930s, Gallows Court harks back to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, hitting the ground running with an assortment of gothic characters and atmosphere. Indeed, as you work your way through the pages of this book, you can almost smell the gas from the streetlamps and hear the hooves of horses as carriage hurtle through a fog-filled city. So far, so very comfortable for Holmesians alike. I felt at home.
Rachel Savernake is the enigmatic daughter of a notorious hanging judge, and the story of her childhood on the island of Gaunt in the Irish Sea, as well as her frosty relationship with a girl named Juliet Bretano, runs concurrently with the main plot of the novel: in which a journalist, Jacob Flint, new to London and intent on making a name for himself as a crime reporter, is both helped and hindered by Rachel when their separate investigations of a series of bizarre and gruesome murders and apparent suicides result in a meeting of minds and resources.
It’s important to note that every character in Gallows Court is vital to the story. From the flashback events on Gaunt to the newsrooms of The Clarion, the paper Jacob writes for; from the backstreet hovels, to the secluded London mansion that Rachel calls home, no detail, no person, is wasted. Nothing is thrown away. I was glued to each page and couldn’t wait to finish, because there was a second book to hit up: Mortmain Hall.
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that both main players, Rachel and Jacob, live to solve another case. And this is yet another violent conundrum that is more cross-country than Gallows Court, with the bulk of the action taking place at the eponymous Mortmain Hall, owned by Leonora Dobell, a criminologist obsessed with murderers who appear to have gotten away with their crimes. She enlists Rachel’s help. The heiress is intrigued because her attempt to prevent the murder of Gilbert Payne, a man presumed dead who returned to England for his mother’s funeral, ended in failure. Leonora’s invitation to Rachel to attend a weekend at the Hall provides her and Jacob with the key to unlock several mysteries.
Rachel knows much more than she ever lets on to Jacob. In fact, only her inner circle of attendants know the full script in advance. Every twist in the story, when you think about it after, is cleverly foreshadowed in the pages of both books. Gallows Court sets up Martin Edwards’ universe, and then Mortrain Hall picks up the already frenetic pace and has an absolute ball with political conspiracies, secret societies, identity theft, and a million different gruesome ways to die. Unlike most Golden Age detective fiction, the blood is on the page, but these are not gratuitously violent books. A lot of the dialogue is tongue-in-cheek, and the main characters possess a sense of justice that is both charming and blood-curdling.
Martin Edwards was recently awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence in the genre. Up unti a month or so ago, I had never read his work. Now, for sure, I will eat up whatever I can get my hands on. Do yourself a favour, if you love your detective fiction historical and bloody, grab these books with both hands and enjoy the mayhem.
Check out Martin’s website, too. It’s a feast of articles, advice for writers, and you might as well take a look at his new non-fiction book, The Golden Age of Murder, a must-have for detective fiction fans everywhere.