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by Stephen Gallagher
Ebury, December 2012
458 pages
6.99 GBP
ISBN: 0091950139

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Any novel that contains Dracula author, Bram Stoker, as a character cannot escape the description of 'Gothic' and all that word implies. When this is combined with a theme based on that of The Wandering Jew or Der Fliegende Holländer it promises a gripping and eventful read. This, without question, Stephen Gallagher manages to provide.

The story begins in Philadelphia in 1903. Sebastian Becker, a Pinkerton Agent with a past mysterious even to his wife, finds himself - against his better judgement - watching a second-rate prize-fight in an equally second-rate fairground show. He suddenly recognises the 'professional' as a man who had escaped whilst awaiting trial for murder in England fifteen years previously, when he himself had been an up and coming police inspector. He confronts the man, Tom Sayers, who had always maintained his innocence, and finds that, as well as continuing to do so, he has an obsession with the events of that period. The author then takes us back to the time in question and we find Sayers employed as the manager of a group of touring actors, run and owned by veteran Edmund Whitlock. The group includes an attractive but unpleasant young man, James Caspar, who appears to have an unusually familiar relationship with Whitlock, and a young woman, Louise Porter, with whom Sayers is in love. When two young boys are murdered, one of them a member of Whitlock's troupe, suspicion falls on the innocent Sayers, who is obliged to flee. His pursuit by Becker and the way in which he manages to stay ahead of the police make up the English part of the story.

It is in America, however, that Sayers's obsession plays itself out as he searches desperately for the woman he loves. It is not, however, his love for her that spurs him on, but rather his fear for her and of what harm she might cause, both to herself and others. He is aware that this fear is not rational, that it is based on superstition, but he is also aware that it is not sufficient that he should believe that. He has to make Louise understand that her beliefs are mere imaginings, that she is not constrained by fate and that she can free herself from the horrors of the past. The action always moves swiftly, but never more so than in the later part of the book as Sayers, knowing what he will probably need to do, tracks her down, forces her to confront her demons and confronts his own.

With the exception of one or two somewhat unlikely bits of narrative - both Sayers's escape from the prison yard and Louise's acquisition of Jules Patenotre's mansion, for example, are rather too easy - the book is extremely well-plotted and is engaging from start to finish. But Gallagher clearly recognizes that a plot, however well-devised, can be unconvincing if it is not set into a believable background and he takes pains to ensure this is provided. His depiction of the slaughterhouse in which a murder takes place is never overstated and there are no gory details but the terror of the victim as he recognizes his surroundings and what is in store for him is very real.

Stephen Gallagher also possesses an ability - so frequently lacking in books of this kind - to suggest pain and horror rather than to describe them in all their gory detail. The prize-fighting scenes and those involving the travelling actors are also very convincing and show not just considerable research but a knowledge of how to use it. The final scenes, located in New Orleans, are, perhaps, the most evocative of all as we see the once prosperous city now reduced to harder times with slave labour now outlawed. It is there that Sayers accomplishes what he has been seeking to do for such a long time. Perhaps that was the only way in which it could have been done.

§ Arnold Taylor is a retired Examinations Board Officer, amateur writer and even more amateur bridge player.

Reviewed by Arnold Taylor, March 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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