On the run: The Last Days of Newgate, Andrew Pepper (2006)

Advertised on the cover as the first of the Pyke mysteries, this debut crime novel provided a good read. The protagonist, Pyke is more anti-hero than hero, a very morally ambiguous character, but less of a hypocrite about it than some of the other characters. Nothing is black and white in this novel.

Set in 1829, as both the Catholic Emancipation Act and the Metropolitan Police Act were passed, Pyke is that dying breed, a Bow Street Runner. His attempts to investigate a hideous murder are hindered at every turn, and soon his very life is in danger, as he is framed for another murder. Set against the dark background of London’s rookeries, reeking with the stench and filth of detritius both human and animal, it is well written and holds the attention throughout. While Pepper, an English lecturer from Belfast, makes no claims to historical accuracy in his endnote, it struck me as largely true to the period, if there were one or two clangers that sounded for me. Interestingly they were largely to do with religion; there were a number of occasions where the religion of the characters was mentioned in circumstances where I couldn’t see that it was relevant. For example, a mob in London was described as a Protestant mob, which didn’t seem quite right to me.

Be warned that the novel contains some extremely gory scenes, perhaps even gratuitously so, to the extent that I do wonder if Pepper was writing more to shock than anything else.

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