In the general way of things I avoid crime fiction set in the past, especially the first half of the twentieth century. There was more than enough of it written then anyway if contemporary detail is the attraction, and I prefer the whodunnit approach of those earlier books to the current interest in why.
Still, there are exceptions to every rule, so when I was asked if I'd like a review copy of Martin Edwards new book, 'Gallows Court', set in 1930's London I said yes please. There can't be many people who know more about actual 1930's crime fiction than Edwards so if nothing else it was always going to be interesting to see how he would evoke the period.
Mostly he does it with music, you could happily make a playlist of the tunes he mentions, and crucially it doesn't feel intrusive to mention them - this isn't a 1930's pastiche. As Harriet Devine says, it's not cosy crime either - there's more than a touch of noir to it all. Rather it's a clever use of the period setting to explore a particular sort of crime - which works well.
It's 1930, and very rich Rachel Savernake has turned up in London where she's set herself up in a west end mansion, is spending lavishly on contemporary art, but is otherwise oddly reclusive. Meanwhile men connected to her father, a notorious hanging judge, keep dying, and who is the Juliet Brentano? A 1919 entry from her journal opens the book and unfolds throughout it.
What too is the shadowy Damnation society, and how far does the influence of its members extend? Also how much of it will young journalist, Jacob Flint, work out before his luck deserts him?
The mysteries all unfold in a satisfactory way, with plenty of twists and surprises - the whole thing is a terrific page turner. As horrendous as some of the allegations about the activities of the Damnation club are, they're perfectly plausible given what we now know about cover ups in the Catholic Church and other institutions. If towards the end some of the crimes alluded to are more than I particularly like to contemplate, they're more or less necessary to justify the actions of those seeking vengeance. And at least there's mercifully few details.
There's a moral ambiguity that runs through proceedings that I also really liked, it meant I wasn't entirely sure where my sympathies lay right until the end of the book when the last few details were cleared up (I'm also the sort of reader who likes to skip to the end for spoilers, but Edwards mostly thwarted me on this, for it all to make sense you need both threads to come together, so no shortcuts).
Basically I really enjoyed this, and look forward to any sequels, it will be fun to see what Edwards does next with his characters - and thoroughly recommend it to anyone looking for a darkly atmospheric thriller.