Shadow of the Hangman

Written by Edward Marston
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

London, 1815. The Napoleonic wars are over but Britain, although victorious, is reeling from civil unrest. The Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, has much on his plate, including rioting American POWs in Dartmoor Prison, two of whom have escaped. To cap it all, the Home Office night-cleaning lady, Anne Horner, has disappeared. Her job may be deemed insignificant but, as Lord Sidmouth swiftly realizes, it is essential. He offers a reward for her safe return and he instructs Peter Skillen to find her. Twins Peter and Paul Skillen are private detectives, known to be good at their job. Peter is quieter and more responsible, whilst Paul drinks too much and gambles. But both brothers work out at Ackford’s shooting gallery and are not to be messed with. Their success and skill infuriates the Bow Street runners who see the job of finding Anne as rightfully theirs, and they set about laying traps to discredit the upstarts. It soon becomes obvious that Anne’s disappearance is somehow mixed up with both the POWs’ escape and the surprisingly literate letter Lord Sidmouth receives, listing the prisoners’ grievances and threatening reprisals.

I really enjoyed this opening salvo of the Skillen twins’ adventures, and Marston is plainly on cracking form. The ratting and boxing scenes in the East End are positively Hogarthian in their depiction of filth and overcrowding; you can almost smell the squalor. The intertwining strands of the prisoners’ escape, Anne’s incarceration, the disgraced scrivener, the close-knit Irish community struggling to make a living in a hostile city, and the enmity of the Bow Street runners all make for a terrific story. Though I did wonder how Anne managed to polish so well in her after-hours job with only candles to see by. Marston’s many fans will love Shadow of the Hangman. More, please.