The Thieves’ Labyrinth

Written by James McCreet
Review by Marina Oliver

One foggy night a man is murdered on Waterloo Bridge, when the toll keepers insist no one else was on the bridge. A body, legs inadequately weighed down with chains, is pulled from the Thames near Wapping. Then a ship with a valuable cargo of silks goes missing. Several investigators compete to solve the mysteries, which are gradually converging. There are the aggrieved Inspector Newsome, demoted from the detective force to the River Police; Mr Williamson, retired former detective; the escaped transporteee Noah Dyson with his friend, the dumb ex-slave; and the one they all want to defeat, Eldritch Batchem, who blatantly self-promotes as ‘By Royal Appointment’, and challenges the police to solve the crimes.

Then the murders become even more gruesome, and the plot more involved as the investigators follow different trails. The action is confined almost exclusively to London’s murky, malodorous river and port. London in the 1840s is depicted with all its gory squalor. The river carries filth of all kinds, the sewers spew their burden, unsavoury denizens of the waterfront can provide information, there are rumours of a ‘beast’ inhabiting the sewers. The investigators must penetrate this world to discover the truth. Then another crime is planned and a trap laid.

McCreet knows his Victorian London and portrays it unflinchingly, warts and all. I even had the impression he enjoys showing this putrid underbelly which most historical novelists treat with scanty detail. The action is fast-paced, the plot convoluted, though the authorial interjections echoing Victorian novelists jarred somewhat. Try not to read this while eating!