Epub Edition November 2006
Print Length: 324 pages
Gallows Thief, set in 1817 London, is the first non-Sharpe book I have read by Bernard Cornwell and I enjoyed reading about an ex-soldier who was at Waterloo trying to solve a murder before an innocent man is hanged. Cornwell begins the novel with a hanging, witnessed by the ex-future father-in-law of Rider Sandman (isn’t that a great name?) as his duty as an alderman for the City of London. The description by Cornwell of the dreadful hanging process at Newgate (next to the Old Bailey) was fascinating, especially since a young girl was hanged for thievery. Of course, her rich employer found the missing necklace after the young lady’s death.
Rider Sandman is down on his luck as he is trying to support his mother and sister after his gambling father lost his fortune and then killed himself. Rider was engaged to the lovely Eleanor until his family fortune went away and Eleanor’s mother put the kibosh on the marriage. Rider is a renowned cricket player, and earns some money via cricket, but the game is getting more corrupt each year by players who throw the games. Rider wants no part of that and is living in the Wheatsheaf, a not-so-reputable inn on Drury Lane. His best friend seems to be Sally, an actress who also lives at the inn with her brother, Jack Hood, aka Robin. Cornwell’s book is filled with interesting characters such as Jack Hood. The class system is very clear as the characters are either titled and rich or untitled and poor. Rider, ever the gentleman, seems to be the middle class representative on the verge of going under if something does not happen to change his fortune.
Enter the Home Secretary. Rider is summoned by the Home Secretary on a referral to investigate the murder of a countess who was stabbed to death. A young painter has been condemned to death for her murder and a member of the royalty knows this young man is a good portrait artist and wants the murder investigated. Rider has a week to determine the artist’s innocence and find proof the young painter could not have committed such a heinous crime. He takes the job even though to the Home Secretary and his assistant, Rider need do little investigating as the famous judge Black Jack Silvester presided over the trial.
Almost immediately, Rider determines the boy is innocent and a week of investigation and intrigue ensue. The murder mystery involves a gentleman’s club in St. James, a nasty old count and his servants, Eleanor and her father, who both still hold Rider in high esteem, another soldier from the Battle of Waterloo that Rider befriends, and the streetwise Sally and her brother, Jack. Rider is also assisted and advised by his good friend Lord Alexander Pleydell.
After reading this book, I think I shall read all of Cornwell’s standalone books before I tackle his other series. One of the series is the basis for The Last Kingdom, a British TV series, and another deals with the American Civil War. This Civil War series features Cornwell’s popular character Nathaniel Starbuck, and this series is soon to be the basis for another TV program. Cornwell has a couple of other series, too, as well as the aforementioned Sharpe. I notice Gallows Thief has some mixed reviews, but I would give it 4 of 5 stars and I recommend the book if you like to read about London in the time after the defeat of Napoleon.
Some of the lines I bookmarked:
We don’t do it any longer, sir, more’s the pity, and as a consequence they lies like India rugs, sir, like India rugs.
He hated talking of money, it was so ungentlemanly, but so was his poverty.
But then, he asked himself, what did love have to do with marriage? Marriage was about money and land and respectability. About staying above financial ruin. About reputation. And love? Goddamn it, Sandman thought, but he was in love.
“That’s exactly why they do it, miss, because they are rich,” he said. “Rich, titled, and privileged, and on account of that they reckon they’re better than the rest of us. And they’re bored. What they want, they take, and what gets in their way, they destroy.”
If I survived that day, I promised myself, then I would not die with regrets. I would not die with wishes, dreams, and desires unfulfilled.