"Death of a Colonial", Bruce Alexander's sixth novel in the highly acclaimed Sir John Fielding series, is neither the cozy, lightweight mystery (à la Agatha Christie or Susan Wittig-Albert) nor the historical thriller that many readers might expect. It might more accurately be categorized as an atmospheric and compelling investigation set within a graphic description of 18th century Georgian England.
Fans of Bruce Alexander's Sir John Fielding series will recall that, in "Jack, Knave and Fool", Lord Laningham died under mysterious circumstances and left behind him a vast estate whose sole heir would have been Arthur Paltrow. But, as Sir John Fielding has sentenced Lord Paltrow to be hanged for Lord Laningham's murder, the estate will now revert to the crown. And, with a seriously depleted treasury, King George III is positively drooling over the thought receiving a delicious slice of a very large pie indeed. "Death of a Colonial" investigates the unlikely last minute appearance of a claimant to the estate, Arthur's younger brother, Lawrence Paltrow, returned from the colonies in America after having disappeared under mysterious circumstances seven years earlier. With the support of his mother, Lawrence now stands ready to do battle in court with King George III and his legal minions. Even under extensive questioning, the man conducts himself in such a fashion as to convince almost everyone, including his supposed mother, that he is Lawrence, the prodigal son returned to England after an absence of nearly a decade. But, of course, if that was all there was to it, then we wouldn't have a story, would we? Sir John smells a rat and, as the master sleuth, Sherlock Holmes (who, for almost a hundred years to come, was not even a twinkle in his parents' eyes), might have said, "The game is afoot!" "Death of a Colonial",as its predecessors in the acclaimed series did before it, will treat its readers to extraordinary characterization and atmospheric embellishment that brings people, time and place to life with a sparkling vitality and a sense of realism that can hardly be rivaled - the sights, the smells, the sounds, the slums, the prisons, the docks, pubs, outdoor markets, dark alleys, upstairs, downstairs, courts, gaming houses, bordellos, street walkers, poor houses, pickpockets, scamps, cut purses, thieves, and murderers. In short, Bruce Alexander brings a gaslit Georgian London to life with an unrivalled clarity.
It's also quite exciting to witness the early growth of modern jurisprudence; some glimpses of Regency law as it pertains to inheritances and the conferring of titles and nobility; and, of course, the exciting story of the birth of modern police procedure through the fictionalized account of Sir John Fielding's experiences as the magistrate of Bow Street Court and his leadership of England's first police force, the "Bow Street Runners.
Of particular interest in "Death of a Colonial" was a brief travelogue of Bath and the narrative of student life at Oxford University in the 18th century.
I've said it before in other reviews of the series but it bears repeating. While each novel in the series can be read as a stand-alone mystery, maximum enjoyment will be the reward for the reader who takes the time to go back to the beginning and read the entire series in order. There is definitely a background story line to all of the characters, their development, their personal growth and their outlook on the world around them. Characters from previous novels pop in and out of the story and it definitely adds a layered dimension of enjoyment to each subsequent novel to know who they are and where they came from.
A highly recommended novel in a terrific ongoing series.