The Infidel Stain is the second novel by M J Carter featuring the unusual detective duo of Jeremiah Blake and Captain William Avery. In the first novel, The Strangler Vine, set in India in the 1830s, they were reluctant amateur investigators of corruption and skulduggery at the heart of the East India Company and the English ruling elite. These were linked to the moral panic and military backlash resulting from the so-called cult of Thuggee, seen as a threat to British rule and “civilised” values. In the next novel it is 1841 and the corresponding excuse for surveillance and repression is the Chartists’ demands for democracy. The two men have returned to England: Blake is now hiring himself out as a private detective to investigate mysteries that the “new police” are incapable of solving or unwilling to pursue. Avery, disillusioned by the Afghan campaign, has left the Army and is living comfortably, but not very happily, in Devon with his wife. Blake is continuing his solitary life, critical of institutions and conventional beliefs, a product of his upbringing which is revealed later in this novel. Avery is conservative but disillusioned by his experience of corruption and the abuse of power and so is unsure about who he is and what he wants to be. The interactions and contrasts between the two men are central to the human interest of the novel as well as its plot.
Avery, although the younger man, is a kind of Watson figure to Blake’s Holmes. He is conventional and repressed, averse to the risks and experiments that his mentor (and eventually friend) insists on. But it is Avery’s narrative and experience that take us through the horrors of London street life, its mud and cesspools, criminal rookeries, the brutal treadmill at Coldbath Fields prison, the police mortuary, old clothes shops, bars and child labour. In the course of this journey, he demonstrates empathies that Blake lacks and that give Avery a significant role in solving the puzzles. His concern for the poor and dispossessed arises from his instinctual kindness rather than from politics or religion-based philanthropy. He is never simply a foil to Blake as Watson is to Holmes and he engages with horrors and alien experiences despite his innocence and tendency to fall back on conventional responses and explanations. Neither figure is idealised, they each have their demons and failings.
The Infidel Stain is the best kind of historical crime fiction, demonstrating impressive research along side lively and convincing narrative and action. At times it could almost be a Victorian sensation novel, with its perverse aristocrats, self-made men, and secrets from the past haunting the present. Carter’s setting is the semi-underground milieu of radical thinkers: the early 19th century revolutionaries who were defeated or who turned to alternative forms of protest and survival – switching from free-thinking publications to printing satirical or pornographic material. There is series of graphic murders of printers, the police are strangely uninterested, and the philanthropist Viscount Allington engages Blake and Avery to try to uncover the truth. Their investigation takes them on a fascinating journey through early Victorian London. En route, they encounter historical figures including Richard Carlile, an old Radical, Henry Mayhew who was to make his name writing about these mean streets, and even (briefly) Dickens. This neat blending of the authentic and the fictional is typical of the best historical crime fiction – like C.J. Sansom’s Tudor mysteries. The exposure of hypocrisy, selfishness and the clinging to power of the privileged is brilliantly done and has (unstated) parallels with the way we live now. (This novel brings to mind all those Victorian novels – like Trollope’s – that Carter seems to have absorbed along with the historical sources she uses with such flair.)
The result is a very vivid picture of everyday life, as well as a rattling good yarn. The idiom is convincing without being a pastiche; street slang and formal discourse are all convincingly done. And there are light touches too such as the episode when Blake takes the stolidly English Avery to eat in a French dining-room. Viscount Allington (loosely modelled on Lord Shaftesbury) is given the words that Disraeli would use four years later in his novel Sybil about the Two Nations, the rich and the poor. The world of the Oriental and the Reform Club, the frigid grandeur of Allington’s house in Mayfair, is contrasted with the Hindoostanee Coffee House and Seamen’s Hostel, and the damp and fetid cellar where two children survive alone. Carter revels in such historical detail while presenting her plot with style. It’s a plot that is fast-moving, full of incident and with some nice twists and turns. The dramatic ending has one of our heroes in peril, the other coming to the rescue, and a surprising revelation. If you haven’t yet read The Strangler Vine, read it now, and follow it up with The Infidel Stain. You’ll enjoy them.