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‘It’s not as if I’d expect you to tell me the truth, dear boy. My readers don’t give a damn about the truth. They just want a good story with someone they can cheer for. We could even make you look good.’ He glanced at Pyke and shrugged. ‘Or bad, if you wanted to be bad. Good or bad. Just not both at the same time. It confuses people. They can’t work out whether to shout for the man or rail against him.’
Anti-heroes and noir fiction detectives go hand in hand. That moral equator gets crossed so many times, the reader is left wondering if the book’s protagonist is possessing of any morality at all. The best kinds of anti-heroes, to my mind at least, are those who possess a sort of bruised romanticism. Once they believed in a better future, but the present has consistently disabused them of that notion. Death-dealing ‘antiheroes’, such as say John Rambo, launch themselves across that moral line without a second thought. For them killing is something that barely needs to be rationalized as a ‘necessary evil’.
It is obvious that the different forms of anti-hero makes for attractive protagonists in any genre, hence Elric, or Thomas Covenant in fantasy and the Stainless Steel Rat in science fiction. In The Last Days of Newgate, author Andrew Pepper suggests a very early progenitor of the trope – Machiavelli’s classic political satire The Prince. For the purposes of this novel, however, he meets the reader halfway, introducing us to a typical Private Eye type named Pyke, who happens to live in 1820’s London.
Of course Pyke is not known as a private detective in this era. Instead he plies his trade as a thief-taker working for the Bow Street Runners. He also enjoys a small sideline in selling on stolen goods that he was unable to secure a reward for recovering. In fact the very first page of this book has him being attacked by a criminal associate, an Irishman known as Michael Flynn in a double-cross. As this is sectarian London, with Daniel O’Connell’s calls for Catholic emancipation inspiring riots in the streets between Protestants and Irish immigrants. Merely knowing Michael Flynn is enough for Pyke to be suspected of unseemly behavior, but the captured criminal is not helping for confessing everything about his partner’s role in his fence operation.
It is a time of great change in London. In addition to the proposal to give rights to Catholics under British law, the politicians are also debating the creation of a Metropolitan police force. This would of course render the Bow Street Runners null and void. In what seems like his last job, an ordinary investigation lands Pyke in the middle of a gruesome murder. The victims are initially identified as a Protestant couple, which causes further riots within the city. Pyke realizes that a patsy suspect will be accused in order to sate the anger of a bloodthirsty public. In his pursuit of the truth, he has to journey from London to Belfast and back, not to mention the little matter of a jail break.
This book captures the pre-Victorian era with an impressive degree of period detail and mixes in a plot strongly reminiscent of Mike Hammer. Occasionally characters quote Machiavelli to let us know this is not low-brow material, but by the same token it is great fun to see Pepper ducking and weaving through the associations.
Most impressive is how the sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants is mapped onto the familiar themes of race hatred from American detective fiction. By doing so Pepper cleverly establishes the extent of the conflict between the two religions, with the British Home Secretary at one point casually stating ‘I believe the Irish race to be an inferior one’.
This is also a book about the gulf between classes. Pyke’s ability to mingle with land owning aristocrats as well as pub brawlers marks him out as an anomaly. He enjoys partaking of laudanum and has little respect for women – but holds himself to an unusual moral code, despite being informed by his study of Machiavelli. In that he regards himself as superior to the men who rule Britain with an uncaring pragmatism, as well as the folk of his childhood whom he can barely relate to anymore.
This book is fascinating in its mixture of genres and informed by an incisive approach to the historical period.