The Devil In The Dock: A Bowman Of The Yard Investigation

Written by Richard James
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

On the London docks in 1892, Detective Inspector George Bowman investigates an apparent Fenian plot, but in a world of suborned policemen, spies, illegal bare-knuckle fights and extortion rackets, nothing is quite what it seems. Bowman is a troubled man, not long released from a lunatic asylum following a breakdown after the death of his wife (for which he blames himself); he is still subject to hallucinations.

James paints a vivid picture of late Victorian London, especially of teeming Dockland, yet the story he tells has also a modern resonance. How common it still is to wrongly ascribe terrorist acts to the scapegoat of the moment, or to blame “foreign anarchists” who “shouldn’t have been allowed in”.

James recounts an exciting plot with a satisfying twist, though he is occasionally prone to over-writing (as in “his moustache twitched at his mouth”), and alongside compelling descriptions such as that of travellers in the long-closed London Subway, there are some anachronisms. Nurses would not have worn crinolines by this date, and the Sisters of Mercy convent could not have been built 50 years earlier without running up against the penal laws then in force against Catholics. A judge muses about sending a habitual thief to the gallows, though a law to prevent him had been in force for 60 years.

These quibbles aside, this is an engaging read with a strong sense of place in which the reader roots for an honest policeman prepared to risk all to get at the truth.