1 April 2015

Ten for the Devil, by Deborah Mitton

This is the first book in a series that the author entitles A Murder of Crows. It spans the middle of the nineteenth century, from a village in England to St John in New Brunswick, Canada.

The story opens with Michael McLaughlin, at thirty-one years of age a Chief Inspector with Scotland Yard, in St John on a fateful day. On June 20 1877, much of St John was burned down. Michael is there in pursuit of a criminal called Seth. He has personal reasons for pursuing Seth, as becomes apparent in the tale that follows.

The author takes us back through time to explain how Michael arrived at this point. She does so through several steps, and I enjoyed this process. I did think at one point that she took this process a little too far when she went back to tell the story of Michael’s father Peter’s best man at his wedding, Jonathan, and even back to Peter’s father and uncle. In the end, however I thought she handled this quite well. When she occasionally hopped from one time period to another, I did not find myself disoriented for more than an instant. She does not return the reader to the ‘present’ (St John, 1877) until the final chapters.

The back stories are interesting and complex, as are the characters which inhabit them. With the exception of Seth, each of the characters has a good and bad side. The darkness of Seth is perhaps overdone in contrast. Apart from the obvious fact that we know Michael will survive at least until 1877, the fate of many other characters is less certain, and I was sometimes surprised—in a positive way—that the author chose to kill off who she did.

Three things initially pleased me about the book. First, the story is not told in a straightforward linear fashion. Second the characters are mostly complex, even those who appear only briefly. And third, the writing is good, tinged with a hint of nineteenth century formality, but not overburdened with the pomposity and verbosity that some people mistake for this style.

Most of the story is told at quite a leisurely pace which is by no means dull or boring, but when the narrative returns to the ‘present’, the pace picks up. This in itself is not a bad thing, but it becomes somewhat chaotic at times and more difficult to follow. The fact that Michael pursues his own personal agenda while the city burns around him is difficult to understand and accept. It’s also difficult to understand how Seth comes from being a squire in a small village to... Well, I shouldn’t give too much away. Clearly there is more back story to be told, but I did find this discontinuity disconcerting. The story at this point has an entirely different ‘feel’ to that which it had earlier. It was not easy to see Seth as the same man.

On the more technical side, one anachronism jumped out at me: the mention, in 1877, of Sherlock Holmes, who made his first appearance in 1887. Others might detect additional anachronisms which escaped me. For about two thirds of the book there were very few typos, but these seemed to increase after this point. At the very least the author might want to correct ‘fish mongrels’ to ‘fish mongers’.

I did quite enjoy this, but more during the back story than in the ‘present’ of 1877. I was also disappointed that the story reached no resolution here. I realise this is part of a series, but it would have been nice to see some ‘endings’ here, while pointing ahead to things yet to come. Instead, the author deliberately creates some ‘cliff hangers’ during the last few pages. I just find this annoying.

All in all, I think this is worth 3.5 stars. I’m feeling generous, so I will round up to 4 where necessary.