The Devil’s Road (Dedalus Europe 2019)

Written by Jean-Pierre Ohl
Review by Jasmina Svenne

When a gloomy pool is drained in March 1824 to make way for the Stockton-to-Darlington Railway, a skeleton is revealed with a dagger still stuck between its ribs. The coat-of-arms on the knife suggests the corpse might belong to Mathilde, the French wife of Lord Beresford, who went missing twenty years previously. Indolent, madeira-loving lawyer Edward Bailey is tasked with uncovering the truth, along with his imperturbable clerk Snegg. But nothing is quite as it seems.

This enjoyable novel is billed as a Dickensian romp and an exposé of the issues surrounding the industrialisation of early 19th-century England. The cast includes several real-life figures (George Stephenson, a 12-year-old Charles Dickens, and even a cameo appearance by Lord Byron), as well as fictitious ones, and at least one borrowed from Bleak House. The characters are not as exaggerated as Dickens’s, but are more realistic as a result. Edward’s relationship with Snegg seems to owe something to Jeeves and Wooster.

Occasionally, because the cast is so large, I lost track of who the minor characters were, and some of the subplots seem to have been included to make political points, rather than to contribute to the main narrative. I was also slightly distracted by occasional proofreading errors (mainly missing or misplaced speech marks) and there are some anachronisms (neither the modern police force nor Durham University existed in the first decades of the 19th century, and references to 17th-century serfs would be correct in France, but not in England). Lord Beresford is repeatedly and erroneously referred as Lord Robert (he is a baron, not the son of a higher-ranking peer).

Nonetheless this is a lively read, brightened by wry humour, and might be worth a second reading in order to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together and spot the hidden clues.