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Review: Gallows Court, by Martin Edwards
Sourcebooks/Poisoned Pen, 2018. 349 pp. $16

Jacob Flint, a young man on the make in 1930 London, has a way of winding up at murder scenes before the police do. For an ambitious journalist, such luck can be a gold mine, the source of scoops that rock the city and make his name. However, that particular happenstance also rouses suspicions from the police, who, though unimaginative — aren’t they always? — assume it’s no coincidence at all. Further, the perpetrators of these crimes, whoever they are, seem methodical, persistent, and absolutely ruthless, so that witnesses have a way of disappearing. Consequently, Jacob’s good fortune could be hazardous to his health.

Further, as he tries to piece together the killings, which seem to multiply before his eyes in the most unlikely circumstances, he keeps crossing paths with the mysterious Rachel Savernake — or almost does. The wealthy, reclusive Miss Savernake shows her lovely face only when she wishes, for as long as she wishes, and to select few. Jacob tries frequently to get in touch with her, but he succeeds only when she grants permission, and only on her terms.

Fleet Street, London’s traditional home of the print and newspaper industries, as it appeared in 1953, decorated for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation (courtesy Anthony Harrison, geograph.org.uk, via Wikimedia Commons)

Jacob believes she’s the thread that connects the murders; she even presented the solution to one of them to the police. Her ability, intelligence, and boldness make her an object of fear, admiration, and bafflement. Rumor says that as a teenager, she had her half-sister’s parents disposed of, on a whim. So what game is she playing? And why does she take an interest in Jacob, leading him — he thinks — to the scene of the next crime?

This is the elaborate premise for one of the most ingenious, Byzantine mysteries I’ve ever read. Normally I dislike mystery narratives in which bodies fall like overripe apples from a tree, especially if I sense that the story needs another corpse to keep the tension thrumming. Not so, here. Everything fits, and Jacob’s emotional reactions matter, not just how he plans his next move. Edwards doesn’t rush through those emotional transitions, and the novel benefits greatly.

I wouldn’t call Gallows Court character-driven or deeply thoughtful, yet Jacob has an inner life, with ambition warring against a sense of morality and fair play. He has an appealing urge to connect with other humans, even if he doesn’t always know how, and his shock when people in whom he’s placed his trust wind up betraying him feels genuine. When people he knows wind up dead, some of whom he called friend, he takes stock — not for long, necessarily, but so that you see his impulses. He also struggles to put forth his better nature when self-preservation or convenience pulls in another direction, as in this passage, when he visits a dying friend and colleague:

The stench of disinfectant and the coarse noise from the bed made Jacob’s flesh crawl. Not for the first time, he felt pangs of self-disgust. A man who had, in his no-nonsense way, been generous to him was close to death. Yet here he was, averting his eyes, holding his nose, struggling in vain to overcome revulsion. He uttered a silent, selfish prayer that Betts would not die while he sat by his bedside. How could he console the widow if the worst happened? It would seem like his fault.

Rachel’s much harder to figure, and though that follows logically from the author’s need to keep certain secrets, I could better understand Jacob’s fascination with her if her character came across more clearly. As it is, Rachel risks being a trope, the beautiful mastermind whom no one can get around, let alone fathom. She has a mission, it seems — which the reader divines before Jacob does — and which explains the profusion of deaths. That the mission attempts to strike a blow for justice helps some.

More importantly, Rachel provides the overriding sense of the novel, the confusion, uncertainty, and danger infusing the very air of the story. Just when Jacob believes that he sees how the wheels turn, he realizes that there are wheels within wheels. At best, he’s a minor cog, one that may intersect with a larger, more significant mechanism, but only as long as he’s useful. When pursuing a lead based on information given him, he never knows whether his informant has hidden motives or means him ill. This atmosphere of fear and uncertainty feels pervasive, as in Hitchcock, and the ever-present “no — and furthermore” applies the framework. But the workings are entirely psychological.

The last two turns of the wheel feel a little contrived, the only ones that do. Nevertheless, Gallows Court delivers a tense, wild ride, and if the ending seems a bit contrived, it’s also satisfying.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.