We begin not long after the second book finished, and all is not well:
Thus it was that my friend, my associate, my burden, Jeremiah Blake, had fetched up in the Marshalsea prison, imprisoned for debt by his sometime patron Theophilus Collinson. Collinson was quietly influential in London’s highest political and social circles. Blake was a private inquiry agent; Collinson sent him to investigate and resolve matters which his rich and powerful acquaintances did not want to leak into the public domain. Blake was paid for his work, and Collinson built up a bank of favours. But Collinson had come to feel he had a justified hold over Blake, and Blake was not – and as far as I could tell never had been – good at taking orders.
Avery is in London, avoiding his wife Helen who is stuck out in Devon and clearly unhappy about it. Towards the end of The Printer’s Coffin we met the famous chef, Alexis Soyer, who is in charge at the Reform Club and has built a reputation as one of the finest chefs in London. Young Matty Horner is now working in his kitchens and so, even as a Tory born and bred, Avery allows himself to set foot on the premises of what is a Liberal club.
Served a fantastical meal (based on real menus and accounts since Soyer really did exist), the evening takes a sudden hideous turn when a young MP falls ill. Avery initially suspects cholera but the man dies that night and it soon becomes clear that he was poisoned. Without the help of Blake, Avery must now try and investigate alone and discover the poisoner before the date of an important banquet that is crucial to the Liberal party’s reputation.
Because Blake is missing for a large chunk of this book, I did miss the odd couple dynamic a little, though he pops up eventually. I was glad to see Avery’s wife, Helen, make a rare appearance. There were hints of disharmony in the Avery marriage in book two which were picked up on here, and I would love for book four to take place in Devon and feature her more prominently. I have never been a huge lover of Helen, but it would be interesting to learn more about Avery through the relationship. In keeping with his character, Avery keeps a lot close to his chest even as a first person narrator, and I would love to see a more emotional side to him.
Although much is followed through from the previous book, the plot is standalone and there is enough explanation to read this book first without worry. Carter weaves a tight plot with so many suspects, all with a variety of motives, that I only had a sneaking suspicion of the culprit right at the end, and even then was not sure until the final reveal. It is an engrossing read (I read it in a day) and a great piece of historical fiction.
Interested in the other Blake and Avery novels? My reviews below: