Assistant to prominent enquiry agent. Typing and shorthand required. Some danger involved in performance of duties...." Thomas Llewelyn applies for this position, not out of a need for adventure but because he has exhausted every option left to him in Victorian England. In one year he has been married and widowed, and gone from being a promising student at Oxford to serving time in prison for stealing. He is out of money and out of hope. If he isn't hired, he decides, he'll drown himself in the Thames.
Needless to say, Llewelyn gets the job and starts a new life as assistant to Cyrus Barker, the brilliant detective in first-time novelist Will Thomas' Some Danger Involved (Touchstone, 288 pp., $22.95). While Cyrus Barker is reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, he is better-rounded. A child of missionaries, Barker grew up on the streets of China after his parents died. He is a devout Christian but also comfortable with the seamy sides of London. His home is filled with an eccentric crew of characters, including a snobbish Jewish manservant, a temperamental French cook, and a dog that enjoys playing bite-the-apprentice. The plot of the book unfolds when a young Jewish student is found crucified in London, and Barker and Llewelyn investigate: Is this the beginning of a pogrom or a cover-up for a personal crime?
Thomas, a librarian, provides interesting period details: Barker attends the church of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, England's best-known preacher; Llewelyn reads George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Also, Thomas delves into the darker aspects of Victorian society, including the racist implications of social Darwinism. But unlike Anne Perry's William Monk mysteries, Thomas prevents Victorian prejudices and social inequities from dominating his story. And his engaging characters will attract mystery readers who are not necessarily fans of the Victorian era: Llewelyn is interesting in his own right, not just as Barker's sidekick, and Barker is a detective with as much compassion and humor as intelligence.
Still, this is no cozy novel. On his first case, Llewelyn is shot at, involved in a brawl and a riot, and abducted by an assassin. As he says, "If I could change any aspect of work as an enquiry agent, it would be the danger...." Luckily, for readers, danger is part of the job.
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