A few weeks ago I reviewed the first of the Blake and Avery novels (The Strangler Vine – M.J. Carter) and I finally had a chance to follow up with the second. In contrast to the first novel, the action in The Printer’s Coffin moves from India to London. It is now 1841 and Captain William Avery has returned to England with his wife. Made moderately famous from their escapades in the first novel, Blake and Avery are brought back together at the request of Viscount Allington. Two printers have been brutally murdered in very similar circumstances and strangely the cases have been ignored by the still new Metropolitan Police. Allington is well known as a philanthropist, and for his keen work with religious organisations.
Chartism is on the rise in London, and our intrepid duo find themselves wondering if there is a link between the local Chartists and these murders. I knew next to nothing about Chartism but Carter manages to weave this movement into the plot effortlessly without it seeming like a history lesson. Class almost replaces the issues of race that were a feature of the first novel, Avery the Tory trying to reconcile his views with Blake’s far more liberal beliefs. Avery’s discomfort at being forced to frequent the less reputable districts of London perfectly illustrates the realities that the Chartists were railing against. The dynamic of this pair is retained from The Strangler Vine: Blake is able to move easily through those streets and talk to those who Avery would not even have noticed; Avery can talk to those higher up who would otherwise dismiss Blake and his theories.
Early Victorian London is beautifully recreated here as we traverse the city, from the upper echelons of Mayfair to the disreputable streets of Seven Dials. To Avery, a Devonian who has only been to London once before as a child, we discover the city through his wide eyes, travelling by train for the first time. Trafalgar Square is new, the Houses of Parliament still unfinished. It is like visiting a London that is not quite our own but is still recognisable. Alongside Avery we are also shocked by the poverty that existed in those times, with no government intervention and only the workhouse as an option, is shocking to read. One scene takes place in the gaol at Coldbath Fields, a young boy locked up for stealing, kept in appalling conditions with the sentence of transportation over him. Even a man who can be so judgemental, with his determination that the man and master tradition should be upheld (in marked contrast to the Chartists), is shown to feel sympathy.
Compared to the first novel, this is a rather simpler and more straightforward murder mystery, but just as well written. For me, I enjoyed the exploration of the history and the location just as much as the actual business of investigating the crime. With all series the reader has the comfort of returning to characters that are already known. The next Blake and Avery adventure will be published on the 27th October in the UK.