On the House, by H.P. Maskew

36011536The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was, like many laws before and since, supposed to make life better for people so poor they had to rely on the charity of their communities while also discouraging dependence on that charity. Unfortunately, there are always people who are more than willing to take advantage of people who have no other options and know they won’t get caught because their employers feel that the poor should somehow be punished because they are poor. On the House, by H.P. Maskew, is set in the crosshairs of the problem of what to do with the people who are too poor to support themselves and can’t find work.

The first half of On the House is narrated by Edgar Lawes. Edgar has a good position in Seddon, Suffolk. He’s independently wealthy, a landowner, and works as the local justice of the peace. It’s clear at the beginning of the novel that he’s got a little too much time on his hands and his utilitarian upbringing is goading him to do more than hand out fines and drink sherry in parlors while avoiding marriage-minded mamas. When his radical and excitable friend, Ted Lake, reports that there are sinister things going on at the local poorhouse, Edgar joins the poorhouse board and starts investigating. Edgar moves slowly, like a good lawyer cautiously building an ironclad case. Edgar does some good, but doesn’t work fast enough to prevent a suicide and a nasty murder.

The second half of the book is mostly narrated by Henry Millhouses, aka Ambrose Hudson. Henry is an investigative journalist for a London newspaper who has built a reputation for going undercover and reporting on the horrible conditions of factory workers in northern England. Henry and his editor have turned their sites on conditions inside poorhouses for their next exposé. Henry is eligible for the Seddon poorhouse and lies his way inside. Edgar’s section only hints at how bad things are inside the poorhouse; Henry’s explicitly lays out how bad it really is. He also gives us a few more hints about what happened to the dead men.

On the House is not constructed like a typical mystery. The deaths don’t happen until a third of the way through the book and, while there are investigations into those deaths, Edgar and Henry’s focus is clearly on reforming the poorhouse. Throughout the book we meet characters who are only minimally sympathetic to the poorhouse inmates. Even though most of the people in the poorhouse are only there because of bad luck and accidents that are no fault of their own, the poorhouse board are reluctant to do anything more than what the law requires. They let their employees, the monstrous Mr. and Mrs. Calman, run the house as cheaply as possible and overlook their abuse of the poor.

Readers of Dickens or mid-nineteenth century social history will enjoy this book, I think. I did, because I am fascinated by historical fiction that looks at the realities of the past rather than presenting a nostalgic version of history. Readers who want a more straightforward mystery may be irritated by the way the Henry and Edgar’s attention moves on from the deaths so quickly. I admit to being puzzled by this, personally. It seems odd to me that a justice of the peace with a passion for fairness would act the way Edgar does. Apart from these problems, I rather liked On the House and am curious to see where the series goes.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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