A Thief’s Justice by Douglas Skelton
Brian Hannan from Abbey Books in Paisley takes a look at a new crime novel, A Thief’s Justice by Douglas Skelton
Every now and then a crime novel hits the bulls-eye. Until now Glasgow writer Douglas Skelton has been better known for non-fiction and his contemporary crime series featuring journalist Rebecca Connolly. That’s going to change big-style. He’s switched to London 1716, a winter so bitter the Thames froze over, when the capital was reeling from the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. In a novel brimming with extraordinary atmosphere stands Jonas Flynt, former soldier turned thief, who takes on shifty work for an even shiftier government security operation known as the Company of Rogues.
When a friend of courtesan Belle St Clair is jailed for the murder of a judge, Flynt sets out to clear his name. In so doing, he might as well have painted a target on his own back. There are enough twists and turns to satisfy the regular crime reader. There’s an intriguing Jacobite subplot involving a charismatic French lady and various encounters with the ruling “godfathers” of crime, whose most cunning achievement is to win official posts as “thieftakers,” the equivalent of policemen, and run a scam where they sell back the goods they have stolen to grateful householders.
But what takes this immediately into the top bracket is the quality of the writing. For a start, the author is steeped in the slang of the day, which instantly creates authentic atmosphere. And he marvellously depicts the underworld in all its filth and ingenuity while his description of Newgate, where gaolers expect a “garnish” (bribe) for everything and where prisoners could be shackled to a corpse, would make you weep.
For Flynt, love is a perilous emotion, so his relationship with Belle remains “more commercial than romantic,” and to some extent that’s just as well for it permits the author to delve deep into the sex worker trade without fogging it up with sentimentality. Politics might be an underworld all of its own, with self-serving chicanery, and no qualms about using state powers for personal gain. Just as well then that Colonel Charters who heads up this gang of rogues is as ruthless as they come.
The well-oiled narrative leads us through all classes, from the high-born to the orphans and destitute at the bottom with little chance of survival except by the fruits of crime, the more vulnerable they are the more easily exploited. One of his best characters is Little Nick: “This was a lad who knew only two things: that the city was large and he was small.”
It’s almost in passing that woven into this tapestry are issues of the day, sex workers – male (“mollies” in the vernacular) and female – slavery, upper class entitlement, female abuse, poverty (the worst-off eat “cockle bread”), unemployment. You might expect a novelist intent on exploring such themes to require a big fat book, but such is Skelton’s skill these elements slip in unnoticed, easily incorporated into the plot.
To be sure, characters are drawn from real life, but so deftly portrayed, so imaginatively brought to life you could almost imagine they were fictional. Treated in this fashion are Jonathan Wild (a Fagin on a gigantic scale), serial prison escapee Jack Sheppard and future prime minister Sir Robert Walpole. Skelton has also plundered history for the various inns and taverns mentioned as well as a famous bet on raindrops running down windows.
It’s hard-boiled all the way. Even Flynt is no great hero of a soldier, but one who turned tail during battle, only by pure chance rescuing Charters who then acted as his protector while still demanding his own pound of flesh. And it certainly posits most effectively a world where wealth and power were so entrenched that they were almost a citadel against which the poor and the desperate could only beat their fists; that is, if, so exhausted by penury, they could summon up the energy. And a world where the only channel to a higher status was through crime.
This is the French Lieutenant’s Woman of the historical crime novel. A magnificent achievement. I hope it’s not sold just as a crime novel and enterprising booksellers ensure readers of historical fiction are aware of its existence.
This is the second book in the series (the first was An Honourable Thief) but they can be read independently quite happily. But while the first one introduced a new interesting historical crime novelist, A Thief’s Justice is a crowning glory.
A Thief’s Justice is available now.