Not so much mystgery as historical police procedural!
Jan 21, 2010
"Jack, Knave and Fool", Bruce Alexander's fifth 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 police procedural set within a graphic description of 18th century Georgian England. "Jack, Knave and Fool" 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, murderers and even a police sting operation designed to snag the fencing operations of a less than scrupulously honest pawn shop. In short, Bruce Alexander brings a very nervous gaslit Georgian London to life with an unrivalled clarity.
It's also quite exciting to witness the early growth of modern jurisprudence and police work through the fictionalized account of Sir John Fielding's experiences as the magistrate of Bow Street Court; the experiences of England's first police force, the "Bow Street Runners"; and the early political realities faced by a coroner as opposed to the forensic realities and limitations of 18th century medicine.
Two mysteries, both workmanlike and well-constructed, run side by side. The first arises when Lord Laningham dies in a very public and rather obnoxious manner at a concert. Although an inquest rules that his death is due to natural causes, Sir John Fielding persists in believing the death to be a murder by poison. When Lord Laningham's wife dies in a similar manner, Sir John directs his sights and suspicion to the heir to the Laningham seat in the House of Lords, Arthur Paltrow.
The second mystery (and, for my money, the more interesting of the two) revolves around the escape of a Bow Street court prisoner. Thomas Rowntree, temporarily in the custody of a rapidly maturing Jeremy Proctor (who with each book has been given more air time, more responsibility and more respect), effectively plays the harmless, friendly fool and slips out of Proctor's clutches. Tracking him down leads Sir John and Jeremy through murder, a major fencing operation and a police sting. Thomas Rowntree's daughter, Clarissa, a feisty and positively enchanting character, is set up for what will almost certainly be return appearances in future novels.
"Jack, Knave and Fool",preceded by "Person or Persons Unknown", "Watery Grave", "Blind Justice" and "Murder in Grub Street" is the fifth entry in Alexander's highly successful Sir John Fielding series. While it does stand alone as a satisfactory mystery, readers will derive the most enjoyment if they dig into the series from the start so they can revel in Alexander's wonderful multi-story character development as well as the mystery.