Canadian novelist Weir sets his tale in Victorian London’s underworld and the realm of boxing. The title character is an ex-soldier turned Irish evangelist, who runs an establishment that saves souls and teaches boxing. “The Hammer of Heaven” causes a sensation when he seemingly kills an opponent in the boxing ring and brings him back to life. Weary of fighting the Devil on a daily basis on behalf of the downtrodden, Daniel writes to a sporting newspaper, challenging the Devil to a boxing match in order to defeat him once and for all.
The narration is shared among Jaunty Rennert, a fellow ex-soldier; Nell Rooney the whore, Jack Beresford/Hartright, a failed preacher turned actor; and William Piper, a sleazy reporter. Are these narrators echoing the four Gospel authors, ranged around Daniel’s Christ-like figure? Another important character is the sinister gambler Lord Sculthorpe, of mysterious background, who severely frightens Jaunty after his bad advice to back Daniel’s opponent costs Sculthorpe money. Yet just when the reader believes Sculthorpe must be the villain of the piece, he helps Nell, although for enigmatic reasons. Readers may find themselves liking a character to begin with, but then changing their minds partway through, or vice versa.
Historical nuggets are skillfully incorporated, such as when Jack and Nell attend the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park; Weir lists some of his sources in the acknowledgments. Readers may need concentration in order to keep all the characters straight, even with narrators’ names as chapter headings. I found the history and setting the most enjoyable things in the novel. The ending is somewhat disappointing, when the book runs out of steam as it leaves the verve of the Dickensian London setting and shifts to the Canadian wilderness.