The Black Hand
Fifth in Thomas’s series of Victorian mysteries featuring the enigmatic private detective Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn, this outing finds the pair pitted against the budding Sicilian mafia in London. Barker and Llewelyn are called in to assist Scotland Yard when the bodies of an Italian assassin and his wife are pulled from a barrel found in the Thames and the death of the director of the East and West India Docks turns out to be murder. They find that they have struck a nerve when their personal chef is stabbed in broad daylight and both start to receive threatening notes signed with a big black hand.
The appeal of this series lies primarily in the characters of Barker and Llewelyn. Barker likes to play the dour Scot but is a multi-faceted man with a mysterious past in China and a friendship with a certain widow that arouses Llewelyn’s curiosity. Llewelyn, a former Classics scholar who had fallen on hard times which included a stint in prison, continues to grow into his position as Barker’s assistant, and his tart narration is a delight. Thomas also excels at descriptions of daily life in 19th-century London; the reader can see the docks teaming with unhappy workers. I was surprised to feel that the mafia element came off as rather cartoonish—it was difficult to be afraid of a note with a big black hand—but I’m chalking that up to a mafia-saturated media in the 21st century.