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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.

Above all she seemed to fear his sudden death (heart attack, car accident), his “disappearing” – “vanishing.”

Like the first husband Dirk supposed.

Except, strangely, Ariah no longer seemed to recall that she’d had a first husband, before Dirk Burnaby.

Joyce Carol OatesThe Falls begins with a tragedy that leads to an unexpected romance and union between two lonely people. For most stories, that might be scope enough for a novel. Oates goes further though, spinning her tale to take in desire, betrayal, corruption, murder and finally, decades after the events that set this story in motion, a kind of redemption.

When Gilbert Erskine jumps from the railings of the Niagara Falls in June 1950, he leaves behind his bride married only hours before. A tortured young man who expected to find in his older wife a replacement mother figure, he instead found himself repulsed by the act of sex itself, compounding all the contradictions in his character, such as being a Presbyterian minister who rigidly believes in the Biblical age of the Earth, yet also feels fascinated by fossils. His bride Ariah Erskine, nee Littrell, is left feeling abandoned, damned, blaming herself for her husband of less than 24 hours’ death. While emergency services search for the body, she takes up a silent vigil of the Falls, which is reported widely in the media, her story fodder for local headlines and gossip. For seven days she waits, refusing to speak to her parents, or Gilbert’s, lying to the investigators who ask if there was a suicide note so that the reputation of a man of god can be protected. When the bloated corpse is finally retrieved, she collapses after recognizing the ring on his finger.

For years the story of the ‘Widow-Bride of the Falls’, is retold, becoming a timeless urban legend, a ghostly figure who is said to still be seen at her vigil. But Ariah’s life continues. During the seven days a young lawyer named Dirk Burnaby offered his services, interceding on her behalf with the emergency crews, the Erskines and Littrells, trying to keep her picture out of the paper. Dirk is a handsome, charismatic local celebrity, blessed with good luck and a powerful family that protects him from his gambling losses and romantic indiscretions. This golden boy and competitive legal eagle is surprised to find himself falling for the brittle and thin-lipped Ariah and proposes to her. They marry in a civil wedding, ignoring the cries of shame from their respective families.

Ariah takes the name of Burnaby, her third surname, and settles into a contented life of affection and mutual devotion. Still she can never feel truly secure, fearing this second husband will also leave, as the man she refers to only as the other did. When she discovers she is pregnant she is terrified by the thought that this is the product of her abrupt one night of married life with Erskine. In all the husband and wife Burnaby have three children, Chandler, Royall and daughter Juliet. Ariah’s fears of being damned, cursed by causing her first husband’s suicide, never dissipate and soon the family is touched once again by tragedy, with the Falls claiming another life.

Oates’ fluid and lyrical style of writing is matched to a plot that surges like the waters of the Falls themselves. Ariah at first believes in a strict moral universe ruled over by a judgemental God, but slowly sees nothing but random chance at work in her world. Dirk never questions the advantages he enjoys as a member of the jetset upper class. When finally he is confronted with a conspiracy that betrays everything he has taken for granted in his privileged life, he is unable to perceive the nature of evil even as it stares him in the face. In the town around the Falls the tourist industry is booming, but secrets have been buried in the ground, secrets attached to the name of Burnaby. Oates takes this story of two people who have found one another, found love in the midst of tragedy and challenges that love, dashing their happiness against the rocks. It’s a story that is passed along three generations, finally ending in the autumn of 1978. A story of voices luring suicides to their end in the Falls, oedipal mothers availing of face-lifts, the mysterious woman in black and a strange shaven-headed boy who holds the answers to the tragedy that haunts the Burnabys.

A truly amazing book.

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