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Review: M, King’s Bodyguard, by Niall Leonard
Pantheon, 2021. 260 pp. $27

It’s January 1901, and Queen Victoria lies dying. Her German grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, has come to pay his last respects, a fact well known to anarchists, the more violent of whom would use the queen’s upcoming funeral to take one or more royal heads. Chief Superintendent William Melville of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, already tasked with security at the funeral, now has even greater responsibility.

William Melville, head of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, 1894, from a scan of an engraving in The Graphic, an illustrated weekly (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Further, the most likely assassin quickly demonstrates a ruthlessness and tactical skill not usually associated with long-haired bomb-throwers. And since the funeral will take place in a week, a national event of utmost importance, Melville has very little time to hunt his quarry. Every move he makes risks exposure in the press, which could cause a disaster with international complications.

This elegant premise drives an utterly satisfying thriller of high-stakes police work and cold-blooded politics. First among its several pleasures ranks the story, in which absolutely nothing goes as planned, and in which Melville, a thorough professional of excellent instincts, nevertheless makes costly mistakes. He’s human, in other words, but it’s more than that. As with all good thrillers, this one sets a brief timeframe and then shortens it, so that each red herring he chases costs him precious hours, as does every occasion in which the villain outwits him.

Consequently, the narrative reads as if Leonard invented “no — and furthermore”; even better, all the obstacles and adaptations to them feel plausible. In another twist, Melville’s chief ally on the ground is Gustav Steinhauer, a member of the kaiser’s retinue, capable in a tight spot, yet a liar about his role on the emperor’s staff, his past, and perhaps even his origins.

So it’s a classic setup, in which our hero doesn’t know whether the people whom circumstance forces him to trust are actually working against him. Likewise, Melville’s boss, an incompetent who owes his position to lineage and political connections, would love to send his subordinate packing. Both men are Irish, but Melville is lower-class and Catholic, therefore an embarrassment to his superior’s pretensions. He’s waiting for Melville to fail.

Another pleasure of M, King’s Bodyguard is its voice, for Melville’s a good example of a narrator who bows to convention outwardly, only to have subversive thoughts. At times, he seems a wee too progressive for a man of his time and position, perhaps more suited to our present age than Edwardian Britain. Even so, you have to like his sardonic commentary, as with his observations about anarchists, one of whom, a nonviolent believer, supplies him with information. “Mother of God, but these idealists make it so hard on themselves. They may sneer at those of us who have faith, but at least we Catholics can get absolution for our mistakes; they flog themselves daily with scourges of their own making.”

In similar fashion, Melville lets fly to himself about the visiting emperor, corrupt members of the ruling class, or, as in the following passage, a hospital, an emblem of moral self-righteousness:

Grey winter light seeped through the high windows of Whitechapel Union Infirmary, illuminating the neat rows of iron beds arranged on either side of this long room. Its whitewashed brick walls were bare except for a plain wooden cross high up at one end, big enough for a fresh crucifixion should the need arise. The place was clean, at least, if the eye-watering reek of carbolic was anything to go by.

I also enjoy the political intrigue, which involves the diplomacy leading up to the alliances that later form the background for the First World War, my favorite historical era. That lends the novel a genuine air, as does the very real fear of anarchists, who’ve killed various heads of state in the preceding years. One criticism: I’m not sure the anarchist characters here would have taken time out to soapbox in otherwise violent scenes. Still, I appreciate Leonard’s attempt to integrate anarchism into the narrative, rather than simply deploy it as a convenient device. He’s done his homework, and overall, the narrative wears it well.

I wasn’t entirely startled to learn, from the author’s afterword, that William Melville is a historical figure. But it did surprise me that Steinhauer is too — and that his writings, thirty years after the fact, provide the story.

At the end, you get the idea that Melville, having realized the extent of the espionage threat to Britain, will take action, which will no doubt require further adventures. Count me in.

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