Arrowood and the Thames Corpses by Mick Finlay: Brimming with dark humour, fast-paced action, intriguing twists and turns - book review -

In well-heeled London society, Sherlock Holmes is the only detective worth hiring… but head south of the murky River Thames and the more down-at-heel sleuth William Arrowood might be just the man you can afford!

Arrowood and the Thames Corpses
Arrowood and the Thames Corpses

In well-heeled London society, Sherlock Holmes is the only detective worth hiring… but head south of the murky River Thames and the more down-at-heel sleuth William Arrowood might be just the man you can afford!

Hold your noses and stiffen the sinews as Glasgow-born Mick Finlay, the new master of gritty, gruesome and gripping historical crime fiction, returns with the third book in his atmospheric Arrowood series which brings Victorian London to life in all its glorious, gothic, grimy tumult.

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These brilliant murder thrillers, which include Arrowood and The Murder Pit, imagine a corner of Holmes’ capital city in the last decade of the 19th century, a teeming, stinking place where the poor are hungry and crime is rife, and the streets are very different to the ones inhabited by Conan Doyle’s famous investigator.

While London’s wealthy take their problems to Holmes, everyone else goes to Arrowood, the clever but shambling detective and self-taught psychologist who operates from rooms over a pudding shop in sleazy Southwark, is led by his senses rather than his clues, and despises the ‘deductive’ Holmes, his wealthy clientele and his showy forensic approach to crime.

In the midsummer heat of 1896, William Arrowood is on a short fuse because not only has he a rash under his arm but his sister Ettie has returned from a prolonged stay with a cousin in Birmingham and brought back a baby whose provenance he would dearly like to know.

When he and his trusty helper Norman Barnett – a man who knows what it is to have lived amidst despair and human degradation – are paid a visit by Captain Moon, the owner of pleasure steamer the Gravesend Queen, moored on the Thames, and his teenage daughter Suzie, it seems to be the start of a run-of-the-mill new case.

The captain says that someone has been damaging his boat when it is moored overnight, putting his business in jeopardy. He claims a man called Polgreen, who is trying to take over his patch, is responsible and he wants Arrowood to investigate.

Professional jealousy is suspected and Arrowood decides that it will only need Barnett to talk to Polgreen and ‘warn him off.’ But after spending a night on the Gravesend Queen in the hope of catching the culprit, Barnett makes a shocking discovery.

The skulls of fourteen children, tied together on a rope ‘like a monstrous necklace’ and attached to the Gravesend Queen’s balustrade, are pulled from the river, along with the bodies of three adults.

Despite the incompetent, arrogant Police Inspector Petleigh ordering them off the case, Arrowood and Barnett know it’s up to them to solve the mystery before any more corpses end up in the watery depths…

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These trips into the squalor and yet sheer vibrancy of the world inhabited by Arrowood and our narrator, his doughty, dependable sidekick Barnett – a former clerk who sprung from one of the city’s notorious courts – have become must-reading for historical mystery fans and those who relish Finlay’s amazing ability to so powerfully evoke the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian London.

Here we are invited to share not just the disorderly chaos of Arrowood’s domestic arrangements but a brutal murder plot that involves a mounting body count, a truly visceral competition involving a dog and a cage full of live rats, and the desperate condition of those on the edge of society.

Using his vast research into 19th century life, crime, policing, and early theories of psychology, Finlay has created one of modern historical fiction’s most memorable detectives – flawed, fallible, fiercely intelligent and fearless – and through him, has rendered readers a fascinating new perspective on literary giant Sherlock Holmes.

Brimming with dark humour, fast-paced action, intriguing twists and turns, and a cast of characters that could well have been conjured up by the late, great Mr Dickens, this is a top-class series that grows in stature with every new book.

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(HQ, paperback, £8.99)