This is the fourth title in A. J. Wright’s series of Victorian mysteries set in the industrial town of Wigan in the north of England. I have not read any of the previous titles as the series had somehow escaped my notice, but I was excited to see a Victorian-era story set outside of the well-trod streets of the City of London.
The setting is not simply a veneer for the story as Wright draws on the distinctive demographic makeup of a northern town such as Wigan to populate his cast of characters. Previous entries in the series have situated the action in more distinctly northern settings such as in a colliery but even a story whose setting is primarily domestic like this still possesses plenty of atmospheric touches and details.
Having picked up the series partway through, I did feel that the characters of the two detectives, DS Brennan and Constable Jaggery, seemed to lack a sense of a life beyond their actions in uniform though a rather wonderful moment in the epilogue left me feeling that the author may have built up these characters’ personal lives in previous volumes. While I may have missed out a little by jumping in with the fourth book, my lack of knowledge did not prevent me from following and enjoying the action.
Wright’s use of spiritualism as a key element of his story is interesting in what he choses not to do as much as what is in the book. Those expecting table tapping and elaborate theatrics may be surprised as the simplicity of Alice’s sittings which is at least partially a reflection of the setting. Instead the readings are plain and short but what attracts people is that rather than speaking in generalities, Alice seems to be able to specifically identify some things that she ought to have no knowledge of. She claims that these abilities manifested after the death of her husband in an industrial accident but DS Brennan is skeptical.
Following a series of successful sittings, Alice receives an anonymous message that seems to be threatening in its tone. Soon threats turn to murder and DS Brennan has to figure out who amongst Alice’s clients may have turned killer and why.
The novel spends quite a significant portion of its opening chapters establishing the characters and it is a surprisingly long time before the body shows up. The mechanics of how the crime was committed are very simple and so the investigation focuses exclusively on identifying the killer and their motive.
The assortment of suspects that Wright provides us with are nicely varied in background and personality although some feel more fully developed than others. Though I identified the killer early in the novel, I still enjoyed reading the interviews as they contain some interesting character moments as well as some small revelations that enhanced the themes of the book. In any case, I rather suspect that my figuring it out was more a result of happening on the right question to consider by chance than a reflection of any great weakness in the novel’s plot and I felt the solution hung together fairly well once all of the pieces were revealed.
On finishing the novel, I was not entirely sure what to make of it. I thought that the book had a potentially interesting premise but the mystery was a little slighter than I had hoped. I never wholly warmed to the two sleuths which kept me from really investing in those characters yet I found the supporting cast of characters to be an interesting mix. I was conflicted.
I suspect that I may have been more enthused by this novel had I checked out some of the earlier titles in this series first. Some of these sound quite interesting, particularly Elementary Murder which, according to its blurb, features a locked room component.
While my To Read list is currently bulging, I hope to give this series another try at some point. I enjoyed the fresh setting and felt Wright did a good job of incorporating historical elements and details while building an interesting mix of supporting characters.
Review copy provided through NetGalley.