A guest review by Jenre
Dark murky goings on in Victorian London are brought to life in this engaging mystery with a couple of likeable heroes.
When a series of bizarre murders occur in London’s notorious East End, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Philemon Raft is called on to solve the crimes, but even he is powerless to explain why the victims are displayed in public places — or why the killer insists on drilling burr holes in their skulls. With little to go on except the strange red dust found on the victims’ palms, Raft must scour the city looking for an explanation. Aided only by his newly-appointed constable Freddie Crook, Raft’s investigation takes him into London’s most dark and dangerous places, where human predators wait to devour and destroy.
But Raft has an even bigger problem: a casual acquaintance is blackmailing him, and what she knows about his secrets could tear Raft’s life to pieces.
Those of you who like historical mysteries are in for a treat with Willing Flesh. It’s a dark and murky tale of murder in Victorian London. Inspector Raft of Scotland yard is called on to investigate a series of gruesome murders where the victims are killed and then their skulls are drilled into. With the help of his new constable, Freddie, Raft is drawn deep into the back streets of the East End, where even the aristocracy isn’t safe from the murderer’s long arm, and where blackmail, male prostitution and poisonings complicate Raft’s case – as does his attraction to Freddie.
One of the things that struck me most about this book was the wonderful setting of Victorian London. We are never told the year, but given some of the Victorian inventions in the book (lifts?) I am guessing that the book takes place late in the 1800’s. Although the city is there as a backdrop, there isn’t any excessive description of places. Instead London is brought to life by the many people who pass through the book’s pages. From whores to children, police officers and surgeons, rent boys and nobility, the people in the book create London for the reader, personalising the book and easily pulling me into the story. Unfortunately this strength could also be seen to be one of the book’s weaknesses because there are so many characters in this story, many of whom only appear for only a few pages, that I sometimes lost track of who was who, and more vitally who was important to the story and needed to be remembered.
One character I couldn’t fail to remember is Inspector Raft. He’s a hard working – and hard put on – police officer who spends much of the book chasing down loose ends, getting frustrated as the bodies begin to pile up, not sleeping well, getting attacked and generally behaving with a mix of tenacity and world-weariness that many great detectives seem to share. Added to this is Raft’s terror over the fact that someone should discover he is gay, especially in the light of the recent Labouchere Amendment to the law which meant that any man caught in a homosexual act could be subject to 2 years hard labour. The thought of being caught and prosecuted for ‘gross indecency’ fills Raft with dread and he spends much of the book worrying about it. On the other hand Raft’s constable, Freddie, is a constant temptation to Raft, especially since Freddie doesn’t seem to be as concerned as Raft over the new amendment. I had a great deal of fun reading about their developing relationship and I liked that the emotional Raft found an anchor in the steadier Freddie. I also liked the way that their investigative techniques were very different and further complemented their relationship, plus I liked that Freddie had his own story to tell and was therefore much more than the ‘love interest/sidekick’.
The mystery itself is a complex meandering thing which brings in lots of characters and threads and loose ends and then gradually pulls them all together to make a clean and satisfying ending – one where I failed to guess the murderer until the reveal. Having said that, I felt that the sub-plot regarding the male prostitutes sat uneasily with the main murder mystery and I don’t think it would have harmed the book any had that sub-plot been dropped. It was hard enough at times to follow the main threads of the mystery without that secondary plot to muddy the waters. The murder mystery is also a bit gruesome in places – so a warning there to those faint-hearted readers. One aspect which I felt was underused was the paranormal leanings of Raft and I await to see whether more will be made of that in subsequent books.
Overall, this was a complicated and compelling historical mystery with unusual and interesting characters in Raft and Freddie. The author has certainly garnered my attention for the series and I look forward to reading the next book. Until then I recommend Willing Flesh to those readers who like historicals and want to get their teeth into a knotty mystery.