One of the lesser tropes of detective fiction is that the detective knows he or she is on the right track when some goon appears and tries to warn them off, sometimes violently. The problem with this method of mystery-solving in M.J. Carter’s The Infidel Stain (sequel to the very enjoyable The Strangler Vine) is that Jem Blake and William Avery uncover so much dirty laundry that they get attacked by a variety of goons under orders from several different characters. It’s a wonder that the pair of them survive the book in one piece.
The novel opens in 1841, three years after Blake and Avery parted in India. Blake, who has become an inquiry agent for the wealthy, has received a new commission that also asks for his former comrade Avery. They have been asked to look into the ghastly murders of two printers in the poorer parts of London by Viscount Allington, a philanthropist and up-and-comer in Parliament. Before long, Blake and Avery turn up links between the murder victims, blackmail, and possible sedition. It’s all very interesting but nothing adds up to point to a viable suspect. There’s just no proof of anything.
In The Strangler Vine, Avery was very naive about world beyond the imperialist propaganda he’s grown up with. In The Infidel Stain, he’s more savvy about the world but still has much to learn about the way most people really live. In both books, he functions as our entry point into the London of Chartists, pornographers, Peelers, journalists, and desperate poverty. Through Avery’s eyes, we see just how bad life was for poor Londoners, many of them skilled craftspeople who were turfed out after industrialization. Welfare (other than the workhouse) did not exist in 1841. The franchise had not yet been extended beyond property owners. The parts of the city Blake and Avery roam through seem utterly hopeless.
Though motives and suspects proliferate throughout The Infidel Stain, I loved how Carter brought the mystery full circle by the end of the book. The clues to the real villain can been found here and there through the book, so the solution didn’t come out of nowhere. I found it very satisfying. I also enjoyed my trip around London in 1841. There are passages that reminded me of Charles Dickens’s and Henry Mayhew‘s writing about the London rookeries of the time. (No doubt this is on purpose because Dickens makes a brief cameo in this book and Mayhew has an important supporting role.) Carter has a gift for bringing it all back to grimy, miserable life.