The Infidel Stain
1841: Captain William Avery and Blake have separately returned to England after their Indian adventures, which were related in The Strangler Vine. Reunited in London, they are hired by an aristocratic philanthropist to investigate a series of gruesome murders mysteriously ignored by the new Metropolitan Police Force. The first three victims, publishers of cheap pornography, had been 1830s political reformers; such radicals with atheist and republican beliefs were called “infidels” and condemned as dangerous revolutionaries. As Avery and Blake probe into London’s underworld, they find connections linking the victims to respected politicians and the rising Chartist movement. Their investigations take them from appalling slums to a grim prison and on to brothels and Mayfair. Further murders and blackmail enrich a convoluted and gripping plot.
Avery and Blake are excellent characters. M. J. Carter cleverly plays Avery, the Devon landowner, more muscle than brain, against the street-wise cynicism of Blake, a product of London’s vicious rookeries. If Avery’s naivety is occasionally overdone, it sharpens the gulf between his conservative opinions and Blake’s political reformism. Influenced by the Tory press, Avery dismisses the Anti-Corn-Law Leaguers and the Chartists as working-class agitators. However, Blake brings him into contact with ordinary people, especially vulnerable children, struggling to survive in wretched conditions, and gradually Avery’s understanding grows.
But the novel’s real hero is 1841 London. Carter’s descriptions of the filthy, dangerous streets, the hovels and workshops are superb. Her lesser characters add to the rich period picture: a girl watercress-seller; Henry Mayhew, the chronicler of London’s poor; the founders of Punch and other ink-stained pioneers of a free press. The combination of a strong plot and the vivid social picture makes this a most satisfactory read. Highly recommended.