Soot

Written by Andrew Martin
Review by Douglas Kemp

A cold and snowy winter in York at the end of the 18th century. Fletcher Rigge is a young man incarcerated in the city’s debtors’ prison because of the gambling debts of his deceased father, who lost his estate at cards. He is released by a local man, the rather louche Captain Robin Harvey, who tasks Fletcher with finding his own father’s murderer. Harvey’s father was a maker of silhouettes, or “shades” as they were known then, and was seemingly killed by one of his customers with his own specialist silhouette-making scissors. Fletcher, who is a likeable sort of chap, generous with his money, if a little naïve at times, starts his investigations amongst the mostly likely candidates, or suspects. These lead him into a series of sordid and personally imperilling stories and he eventually uncovers the squalid truth.

The story is narrated through a series of diary entries by Rigge, various correspondence and legal depositions, which makes for an occasional awkwardness and lack of realism in the structure. There are also instances of the use of modern-day phrases which I feel sure were not used in either written or spoken English at the time of the story. Nevertheless, it is an absorbing read, with a detailed topographical leitmotif of 18th-century York as a central theme.