Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Will Thomas, Fatal Enquiry

Will Thomas, Fatal Enquiry:  A Barker and Llewelyn NovelSt. Martin's Press/Minotaur, 2014
ISBN (trade paperback):  978-1-250-06850-7

The 6th Barker & Llewelyn book, and a reasonable entry in the series.  Unlike the previous books, though, there is essentially no mystery to unravel. 

Sebastian Nightwine, with whom Cyrus Baker’s live has been entwined for more than 20 years (and who appeared in (as I recall, the first book in the series, Some Danger Involved), is returning to London, and has apparently proposed an audacious scheme to the Foreign Office—he is to lead a small (private) army in an attempt to take control of Tibet and make it yet another country under the control of the British Empire.  And while he expects this make himself rich, he also hoped ti discover, and plunder, the perhaps mythical city of Shambhala.  Braker, of course, has his own reasons for trying to prevent Nightwine from doing whatever he plans to do. 

In the course of the story, we discover a great deal about Barker’s past (especially his years in China).  He is also framed for murder, pursued through the streets of London by the police (and by perhaps hundreds of men seeking the ₤250 reward for his capture that has been offered by Nightwine.  [And just how much is that, you ask?  At the exchange rate in 1890, about $1,200 (or considerably more than twice the average income for a working-class man in England at the time); in today’s prices, around $30,000.] 

Also, in the course of events, Thomas Llewelyn, Barker’s young assistant, meets and becomes enamored of a young woman named Sophia Ilyanova (who is not what she seems).  And nearly a dozen people die. 

I enjoyed the book a great deal.  Thomas writes well, and his descriptions of late-19th-century London are evocative (and apparently quite accurate).  [And there is a little nod to a 20th century English author—one of the secondary characters is named Psmith (the “P” is silent).  And you should be able to name that author.]  A number of historical personages appear, one of whom might be familiar to mystery readers, Israel Zangwill, a Jewish intellectual/journalist, who wrote one quite good mystery novel, The Big Bow Mystery. 

The problem is this:  There is no mystery involved.  The plot is based on the conflict between Barker and Nightwine, so we know, from the beginning, that there will be a confrontation between them.  We can also infer that Barker will survive the confrontation—because he is the main character in the series (think of Llewelyn as his Archie Goodwin).  The story has to be strong enough to get us to that end, and it, in general, is.  And there is, I think, at least some ambiguity about the ending.

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