“That’s done it!” is what Arthur Conan Doyle is reputed to have said upon completion of his historical novel, The White Company, before throwing his pen across the room! I felt a bit like this after reading the last page of David Ashton’s highly entertaining historical mystery, in which incidentally Conan Doyle features prominently. For some reason it took me ages to actually get through the book, this despite the fact that I was greatly enjoying it. But why?
I offer the following review as the third in my 2012 Local Library Challenge, in which I am supporting a great and valuable institution currently under threat in the UK under the draconian cuts of the present government.
“I am James McLevy, inspector of police. I must ask you to come to the station with me, my mannie. You have murder on your mind and I must forestall that intention.”
It is close to Halloween and Inspector McLevy of Leith, Edinburgh, is haunted by dreams of a spectral figure in a red cloak – a reference to the Poe story he has just been reading most probably, or perhaps an omen of something much more sinister? Past, present and future are imaginatively combined in this book that flashes back intermittently to events in 1864 from the present but also with an eye on the literary future of a certain Baker Street Detective. In the present of 1882 our protagonist certainly has his hands full with several interweaving narrative strands competing for his attention. Two of the more substantial plots run in parallel: one involving the murder of a shady businessman with its roots in the dying days of the American Civil War; and the other involving a turf war between the madams of the two most prominent of the local brothel. ‘The Countess’ is a cold-blooded, reptilian creature who treats her prostitutes as chattel and is furious that two of her ‘girls’, tired by some of the violent demands made by her ‘special’ customers, have defected to the ‘Just Land’ run by Jean Brash, who in her own way is just as tough and resourceful but who also treats her staff much more humanely. The Countess however is utterly ruthless and soon begins a campaign to get her girls back and put Brash in prison, employing hired killer Alfred Binnie to attack one of the girls with acid and then frame her competitor for murder.
“This doesnae look good.”
Luckily for Brash, after she is found next to the body of a man stabbed with her own knife, she is able to get some help. Thanks to a fine taste in coffee that is appreciated by McLevy, he ignores his superiors to see beyond the obvious and discovers what the Countess is up to. He just has to prove it to his ultra conservative boss, Lieutenant Roach. In the meantime he also has to find to deal with many other crimes with the help of his faithful sidekick, Constable Mulholland, who is here occasionally displaced in McLevy’s affections by a young wannabe writer. The two subplots, one involving a burglary and another the activities of an American spirit Medium on tour in Scotland, are tied together by the presence of Arthur Conan Doyle, a recent medical graduate eager for adventure.
James McLevy had seen some messy corpses in his time but this one took the biscuit.
The presence of Doyle fulfills what in the historical mystery is now considered par-for-the-course: the presence in an otherwise fictional story of real historical personalities. However in this instance this is on the face of it only right and proper since the hero of the series, Inspector James McLevy, really existed. Indeed, he was not just a celebrated Victorian detective with the Edinburgh police – he was one of their first (or the actual first depending on what source you rely on). In addition the man himself wrote several accounts of his cases and these have served as the basis for this ongoing series of books and radio plays by David Ashton. Trick of the Light sees the Inspector mentoring a young Conan Doyle in the methods of deductive reasoning and an extended sequence in which he explains how burglars broke in to a house is very much in the Holmesian manner. Although Ashton can’t resist suggesting that the real-life detective influenced the prospective young author, this is not meant to be taken as literal truth as this is a heavily fictionalised and even a-historical depiction of McLevy – if for no other reason than the fact that the real Inspector actually died in 1875, several years before the events depicted in the book are said to take place. None the less, it has been said that Conan Doyle really was influenced by Mclevy’s reported cases, just as he was by Poe’s tales of ratiocination; the great American writer is also given his due here with a gory murder that apes (sic) ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, though this ultimately proves to be a neat bit of misdirection on Ashton’s part. On the other hand, when the lead female character is given the surname ‘Adler’, we assume that is a reference to ‘the woman’ from the Hlomesian canon. ‘Sophia Adler’ is a an American spirit medium whose apparent ability to commune with those on the ‘other side’ that has taken Edinburgh by storm and is proving particularly fascinating to Doyle, who of course would later become as known for his interest in spiritualism as for the creation of Holmes.
While the various plot strands are dealt with more than efficiently by Ashton, the great success of this book and the series as a whole is the sexy and spiky relationship between dark and haunted McLevy and earthy and beautiful Brash, which never quite slips the bounds of propriety as befits that between an upright Victorian policeman and the madam of a ‘bawdy hoose’. Reading the book, I found it impossible not to imagine the scenes between them as played by Brian Cox and Siobhan Redmond, who since 1999 have played the roles for BBC Radio. This is one of the BBC’s most popular and longest running mystery series – and is certainly my favourite detective show currently on the air. The radio series is also written by Ashton, who incidentally also appears as McLevy’s superior. Trick of the Light is the third of his spin-off novels and while he has managed the transition to prose very impressively, it does seem as though, to differentiate his novels from his radio versions, he has expanded the stories with detailed internal and external descriptions that slow down the pace considerably, which may explain my slow progress with this book.
“A necessary callousness becomes the good policeman; too much sensitivity and you’d never get anything done”
I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism, but rather it’s the fact that as a fan of the radio series I am well acquainted with the characters already, and indeed elements of the plot as Ashton has based the novel on parts of his radio dramas, which therefore made me occasionally impatient. On the other hand, on several occasions Ashton really does seem to be overdoing it. A case in point is the curious incident of the throwing of the cricket ball. McLevy and Doyle lie in wait for the beast that has crushed the head of one man already and is planning to kill another. Eventually McLevy follows his prey out of a skylight through which it came and a fight occurs on the rooftop, while Doyle is stuck on the street below, seemingly unable to help. Until he finds a cricket ball in his pocket. It then takes Ashton six short paragraphs and nearly 120 words to describe Doyle coming to the Inspector’s assistance by throwing a cricket ball at the murderer! It’s very nicely put together, but this is supposed to be the action climax of the story!
Despite occasional longuers, this is a consistently well written-novel with lots of fascinating local colour and some marvelous dialogue together with a surfeit of plots, none of which will probably tax the dedicated mystery fan too much (admittedly a deux-ex-machina in a theatre sequence towards the end does feel just a bit too contrived), though there is a very satisfying final twist in the tale involving a switch of identity that would not look out-of-place in a Ross Macdonald novel and did surprise me very pleasantly.
The novel is derived, broadly, from elements found in some of Ashton’s radio plays, with the Adler story specifically derived from season three’s ‘The Dark Shadow’ and season five’s ‘The Reckoning’. Those interested in comparing the two can purchase the plays either on CD or as a download from the likes of Amazon or AudioGo. Ashton talks about the series in this video clip below:
For more information about the author, visit his homepage at: www.david-ashton.co.uk/
For further details about the activities of the real James McLevy, visit: www.jamesmclevy.com/