Sunday, November 8, 2015

Fatal Enquiry by Will Thomas (A Barker and Llewelyn mystery)

A Fatal Enquiry, Will Thomas' first entry into the Barker and Llewelyn series after a multi-year hiatus, is at once a relief and a disappointment.

First, the good: Llewelyn returns in fine form, his narrative voice as clear as ever and, though a bit wizened from several years of working with Barker, still shows all the affability, cockiness and impetuousness of his 21 years.

Thomas' Victorian London is also still intact, redolent with historical places that range from cafes attached to Masonic lodges to Westminster Abbey to shabby Thames waterfronts.

The plot of this installment, during which Barker and Llewelyn are on the run from various parties after Barker is framed for murder by his Moriarty-esque nemises, is well-thought out and interesting enough to keep on turning pages.


There was something desperate about this installment, which often felt like a thinly-veiled advertisement for the previous books in the series as well as a mad grab for the American action mystery set. Some action is fine, of course. There's no point in reading a mystery in which the detectives are always safe as houses, after all. And fight scenes in this series in particular make sense since martial arts is very much a part of who Barker is. And it makes sense Barker would train Llewelyn and that Llewelyn would need to use that training. But all the running around and fighting just felt tedious in way it never has before.

Thomas has also developed an exasperating habit of unnecessarily recapping what happened in the last few pages. If I just read about how three Scotland Yard officers were thwarted from capturing the pair while they're running on a bridge, don't begin the next chapter with a summary. It read like a not-so-subtle humblebrag, as though Thomas were playing at bashfully saying, “Look at what an immensely entertaining scene I just wrote! Aren't you glad you're reading this?”

Well, I was. Until the fourth recap.

Adding to the narrative disruption, beloved characters and places from previous novels were gratuitously shoved into this story. It's as though Thomas felt if he didn't have Llewelyn go to the Barbados for a mocha and smoke the pipe with his name above it, all while philosophizing with Israel Zangwill, his fan base would disappear (we won't).

Likewise, Barker's ward and partner were both shoehorned into the story, though the latter served well to shed some light on Barker's mysterious past (which was, sadly, predictable and unimaginative; hint: a woman fueled the animosity between Barker and his nemesis).

On one hand, I get it. Readers like me return to mystery character series precisely because of the characters we come to know and love. I look forward to seeing Billy in every Maisie Dobbs mystery and of course enjoy it when Ian Rutledge's sister makes an appearance.

But here, Dummolard and Israel and even Mac to some degree just got in the way of, you know, the actual plot.

And, while Barker's nemesis Nightwine was great when he first appeared, here he became a rather lazy Moriarty rip-off. The femme fatal wasn't much more compelling, either. Of course she's a stunning blonde assassin, and of course she's kinda-sorta-not-really a victim of circumstance. Yawn.

(How I wish just once a femme fatal could be frumpy or clumsy or have a poor sense of fashion or wear sensible shoes because walking around London to reconnoiter a target must be hell on one's feet! Imagine a hero falling in love with a woman who is less than beautiful but has other charms to recommend her. But no, surely if that were to happen the entire niche publishing industry of Victorian mystery series would collapse, I suppose.)

In short, I wish Thomas would have just let the story he was trying to tell be the story. We'll come back to see Mac or Dummolard another day, we promise.

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