I'm reading a good bit of weird and horror at the moment - 'Women's Weird Volume 2', and 'British Weird' from Handheld Press, and some of the British Library titles too, but in-between, and because I scare easily and still want to sleep at night I'm mixing in a few other things. 'The Port of London Murders' turned up on my doorstep on Tuesday and looked so appealing I read it straight away.
I particularly love the cover of this one which goes all out for the atmosphere and is an excellent match for the atmosphere of the book. I read this almost in a sitting not so much because of the mystery element - which is okay, but because the London it depicts is irresistible.
When I say the mystery is okay I don't want to sound like I'm damning it with faint praise - it's a rattling enough yarn where the reasonably high body count seems totally reasonable, but we have a grasp on who the villains are from early on so it's more of a question of how they commit certain crimes, and will they get away with it. The murdering, as we also find early on is linked to drug smuggling, the scheme behind this is clever, although I doubt it's how actual drug smugglers would work - although I'm fairly ignorant about this the amounts seem small for the risks involved.
Meanwhile what really makes this book sing is how Bell depicts the slums around London's docklands and the characters to be found there. Some are respectable, prosperous even, engaged in honest work on the river. Others are chancers, criminals, grifters, or simply hanging on at the end of a long life. They're all compelling. I really wanted to know if Harry Reed and June Harvey would reach an understanding, if Leslie Harvey would realize his dream of another ride in the Police launch, and if Mrs Bowerman would make it to the end of the book.
There are wonderful descriptions of the working life of the Thames, a tense section whilst a tug pulls 4 barges through a thick fog with the possibility of disaster looming all the time given they can't see where they're going. The descriptions of the sights, sounds, smells, and texture of life on the river are fabulous - it is easily the most compelling vision of London I've come across in this series (better even than in A Scream in Soho).
It is altogether a deeply satisfying book - enjoyable, easy to read, intelligent, and a portrait that rings true of it's time and place - the by play between the Pope and Dunwoody families, along with the headache they are for the Doctor and their welfare officer is comic genius. It works so well because Bell maintains a compassion for her subjects that stops them falling into caricature or parody.