A rich stew of conspiracy, murder and debauchery set in a vividly seamy Regency London.
For some reason this brilliant novel by poet and academic Richard Marggraf Turley has garnered some unenthusiastic reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, which is a shame as I think it deserves far better than that. His writing is superb – the setting of London in 1810 is tangibly alive, vibrant and disgusting, the characters are interesting and the plot is satisfyingly labyrinthine and surprising.
The Cunning House begins with the discovery of the body of one of the Duke of York’s footmen, who seems to have shot himself in the stables of St James’s Palace. We then move to a depiction of an infamous real-life raid on a ‘molly house’ (ie a gay brothel) on nearby Vere Street, seen through the eyes of a naive young psychiatrist who is visiting the establishment to do research to further his understanding of a dangerous patient of his. Before the raid the young doctor encounters various clients of the ‘molly house’, including an undercover French spy and an enigmatic masked aristocrat known only as ‘the country gentleman’.
We are then introduced to the novel’s protagonist, the lawyer Christopher Wyre, a rather rigid jobsworth who specialises in prosecuting and hanging ‘mollies’, and who is assigned to investigate another death at St James’s Palace, this time of a valet to the Duke of Cumberland. Amid swirling rumours that the valet’s death is somehow linked both to the Vere Street raid and to the French, Wyre is also drawn into investigating various other brutal assassinations around London by a friend of his, a dashing Bow Street Runner. He is also hired by a beautiful woman to track down her fiancé, the young psychiatrist, who has disappeared since the Vere Street raid.
Turley keeps many different plates spinning in The Cunning House. Wyre is dragged into a quagmire of intrigue involving the ‘mollies’, the French, the royal family, his own superiors, a religious cult, an asylum, and more, and there are many twists and turns along the way. Certain plot points are in fact left unexplained or unresolved by the end, but I actually like when not quite everything is tied up with a neat little bow and some things are left up to us to figure out. In a way it’s a bit like a Regency Raymond Chandler, in that specific plot outcomes are secondary to setting and atmosphere.
The aspect of the novel that really stood out for me was Turley’s prose. He had clearly done his historical research, and that along with his resplendent descriptions of both the seedy, muddy, ruthless underbelly of London contrasted with the sinister yet refined world of the palace was very effective. He makes liberal use of period slang as well, providing no translation or glossary, which creates an immersive authenticity. Turley doesn’t shy away from very raunchy explicit language and description either, of which there is quite a lot specifically related to the brothel scandal, and I can imagine that not being some readers’ cup of tea.
Another thing I really liked about The Cunning House was that its main character, Wyre, is a very realistic sort of investigator. He’s no brilliant Holmesian sleuth, nor is he a swashbuckling hero. He mopes around a bit due to his wife having left him, and is also, true to the historical norm, pretty viciously homophobic, and therefore rather unlikeable as the novel begins. But as he becomes more aware of and angered by the injustice and deceit he’s up against, he began to win me over in his battle to expose what’s going on. He emerges as dogged and clever in a believable sort of way.
While not perfect, this is a very strong first novel by Richard Marggraf Turley which I think deserves to be better known. I hope he’s working on another, as I would certainly want to read it.
Sandstone Press | 2015 | 400p | Paperback | Buy here