You know when you can tell as soon as you start reading that you’re going to enjoy a book? That’s how I felt about Soot, Andrew Martin’s new historical mystery set in 18th century York. The plot, the characters, the atmosphere, the writing style…I loved them all!
Let’s start with the plot, then. In August 1798, Matthew Harvey, a painter of silhouettes, is found dead – stabbed with his own scissors – in his house in Coney Street, York. Assuming that suicide can be ruled out, the only suspects are the six sitters who visited him during the previous week. The problem is, the page on which Harvey recorded their names has been torn out of his ledger, so that the only remaining clues are Harvey’s private duplicates of the silhouettes – or ‘shades’, as they are known.
Fletcher Rigge, a young gentleman who has found himself in financial difficulties, has spent three months in debtors’ prison in York Castle when he is approached by Captain Harvey, the silhouette-maker’s son. The Captain makes him an offer he can’t refuse: he will arrange Rigge’s release from prison, on the condition that Rigge can identify the people in the shades and help to track down the murderer. Rigge has previously used his detection skills to locate a missing book while working at Skelton’s Bookshop – this is what brought him to the Captain’s attention – but finding a killer could prove to be somewhat more difficult than finding a book…
As Rigge attempts to trace the people in the silhouettes, his search brings him into contact with a variety of colourful characters, including the clever and resourceful Maria Sampson, the temperamental young actor Jeremiah Smith – and my favourite, the London-based author Samuel Gowers, a proud, pompous man with an unfortunately large nose which lends itself to some comic scenes à la Cyrano de Bergerac. Rigge himself is another intriguing character, described at the beginning as having ‘a lowness of spirits, offset by a mordant wit and a prideful obstinacy’. Due to the structure of the book (more on that shortly) I was never quite sure exactly how reliable his narration was, but I did end up liking him and enjoyed accompanying him on his travels around York and beyond.
Georgian York provides a wonderfully atmospheric setting for the novel, particularly when covered in a blanket of snow (Rigge’s investigations take place in winter). From the slums of First Water Lane, home to Captain Harvey, to the Theatre Royal, the Black Swan coaching inn and the elegant townhouse belonging to one of the suspects, everything is vividly described. The language used in the book is appropriate for the 18th century too; I could tell the author had taken a lot of care to try to choose the right words and turns of phrase. This is particularly important because the book is presented as a collection of authentic documents gathered together by attorney-at-law Mr Erskine and sent to the Chief Magistrate of York.
Most of the novel is in the form of extracts taken from Fletcher Rigge’s own diary, but there are also diary entries written by Captain Harvey’s mistress Esther, newpaper reports, interviews with witnesses conducted by Erskine’s clerk, Mr Bright, and commentary from Erskine himself. Andrew Martin uses this structure very effectively to keep the reader guessing and wondering which accounts are reliable and which are not. The solution to the mystery is certainly not as black and white as Matthew Harvey’s shades!
Soot is a great book. At first Fletcher Rigge’s story reminded me of Thomas Hawkins’ in The Devil in the Marshalsea, but it quickly developed into something different and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. Now I’m hoping for a sequel!
Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.