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OLD SCORES
by Will Thomas
Minotaur, October 2017
304 pages
$25.99
ISBN: 1250077966


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Sometimes, after reading a string of books that stretch the parameters of the crime fiction genre to the bursting point, one longs for a series that respects those boundaries while developing interesting characters, a tricky plot, and a thoroughly convincing setting, but one that nevertheless avoids blandly serving up the mixture as before. If that's the case for you, then you will not go wrong with Will Thomas's Victorian private enquiry duo, Barker and Llewelyn.

Their latest adventure, OLD SCORES, the ninth, set in London, 1890, concerns the murder of the Japanese ambassador, a crime for which Cyrus Barker is briefly detained (and badly beaten by the Special Branch into the bargain). Once released, he is approached by the ambassador's replacement to find the actual killer, as that dignitary does not trust the British cops.

The subsequent investigation relies heavily on Barker's experiences in his earlier life in the Far East. He speaks both Japanese and Chinese, has a lovingly tended garden in the Japanese style, plays Go, and has useful connections in Limehouse. Among these is his ward, Bok Fu Ying, now married to the opium addicted casino owner K'ing. Barker has come to regret his encouragement of the match, having hoped for more from K'ing but to date has not concluded how to deal with the unfortunate marriage. What we do learn, however, is how Fu Ying came to be his ward, and what happened to Barker's wife years ago.

Barker and Llewelyn are frequently compared to Holmes and Watson and to the degree that both pairs are active in later Victorian London and both comprise a dominant and accomplished partner with a relatively inexperienced and sometimes naive sidekick, there is something in the comparison, especially when the junior partner is also the narrator of the tale. But the similarity pretty much ends there. Barker is a man of mystery but not an intellect - his strength lies less in his powers of observation than in his experience with a dubious, often deadly, world.

Llewelyn, a former Oxford undergraduate with a conviction for petty theft, has learned a lot over the years he has been associated with Cyrus Barker. Although he remains deferential to his boss, he is far from intimidated. One of the pleasures of the series is seeing how the relationship between the two changes and deepens over the years.

This, however, is not to suggest that it would be a mistake to hold off cracking open OLD SCORES until the previous eight entries have been read. The books are sufficiently different to one another that they can stand alone. For example, the previous novel (HELL BAY) was a brilliantly conducted locked-island mystery. And the one before that (ANATOMY OF EVIL) concerned the "Whitechapel Killer," and you know who that is. This one features the politics of the Japanese decision to abandon a traditional isolationism and open to a wider world, something which Britain views with avaricious anticipation. And Will Thomas is careful to provide sufficient back story to keep the reader on track without bogging down the action with tedious detail.

All in all, both the series and this particular title can be confidently recommended to any reader who likes a well-researched historical with attractive characters and strong narrative drive.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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