Gallows Thief by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I don't read a lot of historical fiction, but, when I do, it's almost always Bernard Cornwell's. I like the level of texture he gives his places and times, and how real he makes them feel. For all I know, his descriptions may not be entirely accurate, but they don't feel like a pale reflection of modern times, pining for better technology or updated attitudes.
Gallows Thief is a standalone novel, though it could easily have lent itself to sequels. It takes place after the Napoleonic wars, in London. Rider Sandman is a former soldier, a cricket player, and, thanks to his father's money trouble, broke. He's commissioned to erase all doubts about a man, scheduled for execution in a week, being the true murderer. Instead, he unearths the real killer.
Rider is a man's man: he prides himself on his status as a soldier, to the point where he berates a beggar claiming to have served at Waterloo. He gains information from one source by dangling details from the battle just out of the man's reach. He twists his ankle escaping a would-be assassin, and continues to walk on it. He's also a gentleman. He calls off his engagement to the woman he loves because he can't provide for her, and is gallant and protective of an actress he befriends. He refuses to step down from the investigation when it becomes clear the man accused is innocent, even when he's offered enough money to pay all of his father's debts. He impresses a guard at his enemy's employ so much, the man allies with him.
There are only two major female characters, but they both prove useful, in their own ways. Sally Hood is an actress who lives at the same inn as Rider, and she helps directly with the investigation. Eleanor is Rider's ex-fiancée, and her insight proves invaluable to the case.
The title refers not to those who would rob dead men after hanging, but to the act of "stealing" from the hangman, as if the executioner misses out by not killing an innocent person. It did happen in the time period covered in the novel. I imagine it would happen much the way it does in this book, too, with an investigation relying on tracking down witnesses who never gave evidence at the trial. Cornwell has just devised a creative reason why the key witness disappeared.
Overall, I enjoyed this murder mystery set in the early 1800s. It was a solid, plausible story, with no glaring anachronisms to distract the reader. Rider never employs primitive forensic techniques or wishes for a device to determine whose blood was spilled where; he works with what he has to the best of his ability as an untrained investigator.
I listened to this book on audio, and the narrator was a good choice for the book. He has a deep-voiced, arch delivery that suits the character well. There were times when he raises his voice because the characters are yelling, and I had to quickly turn the volume down, lest it blow out my eardrums. Otherwise, though, his narration was excellent.
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