Written by Mark Sanderson

Review written by Michael Jecks

Harper Collins
RRP: £12.99
Released: 7th January 2010

This story begins with an excellent idea - the protagonist speaking first person to his diary, explaining that he had that morning witnessed his own funeral. A nice hook to grab the attention.


The book is set late in the year 1936, and it encompasses all the seedier aspects of London. Dingy alleys; darkness; corruption; male prostitution; drinking; drugs  and the police. Unsurprisingly (the writer is a journalist in real life) journalists come out pretty well. Most may have irritating affectations, some may appear to be unpleasant, but none demonstrate the nastier tendencies of their modern-day counterparts. However actresses, police and just about all others seem to be pretty dim, self-serving and basically unpleasant. It is not a pleasant book from that point of view.


It begins with the hero, John Steadman, a working class lad who's worked his way up to a post as reporter for a London paper, receiving a tip off about a policeman who'd died. Intrigued, he tried to find out all he can, but is stalled by the police themselves, even by his best friend, who is an officer in the police station where the man's supposed to have died. Steadman is convinced he has a possible scoop, though, and pursues the story no matter where it takes him. And it proves to be very dangerous for all concerned.


The plot has real potential . . . but . . .


Reading it, I was grabbed by the story enough to read it, but it did feel very much like a first novel. The characterisation of the lead figure, Johnny Steadman, was good - the others, far less so. The period detail was initially interesting, but soon began to grate. There was too much of it. And then I was jarred by the sudden interruption of the murderer's first person mental meanderings. It's growing to be a cliché, this: every few chapters it seems editors require the murderer's point of view, as though no reader can be gripped without these supposed 'insights'. In this case, I got the distinct impression that the italicized sections were an editorial afterthought. They didn't add to the story, and in fact pulled me up short, wondering why they were there at all.


Someone who is interested in the between-wars period will perhaps enjoy this. There is a good evocation of the atmosphere around London during that smog-filled winter, and the description of the porn market and male brothels feels quite accurate - but for me there were too few sympathetic, rounded characters who behaved logically. All too often they seemed to put themselves into ludicrously dangerous situations that were entirely unrealistic, purely to move the plot along. And I am not sure who will want to read this kind of story. It is a modern-day, gritty tale of sex, greed and murder. The sexual element, though, is not the kind that will appeal, I fear, to many of those who read historical fiction. No. It didn't appeal to me.


I did not feel engaged in the same way as when reading, say, a Laura Wilson, and the prose style was never up to her standard. And that was the real problem, perhaps. To write about a period like this, the prose does have to be good. This never felt quite right.


And if the words themselves feel wrong for the period, it makes it much harder to suspend disbelief.


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