A new publication by Alex Scarrow is enough to set me off whimpering with glee – just the promise of The Candle Man was enough to make me buy a beautifully signed collectors edition, complete with an annotated page from the original manuscript, even though I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy. I am that much of an Alex Scarrow fan (you can see a photo of me with Alex here. I’m the one grinning like a loon). The Candle Man comes from a darker place in Alex Scarrow’s writing genius. While the superb TimeRiders series is aimed at teens – though it should be snapped up by everyone – The Candle Man is most definitely adults only. We’re in Jack the Ripper country here. Time to hide behind the sofa.
You might be aware that one hundred years ago a certain ship sailed proud across the Atlantic before being sunk by an iceberg. You need have no fear that The Candle Man is a Titanic novel but it does begin with a brief prologue in which a man makes a confession aboard the vessel as it sinks. He is well aware that there’s no space in a lifeboat for him but he does not want the truth to drown with him. And so, as the ship tilts, the furniture slides and the plates smash, he reveals all to a young lady who may just be fortunate enough to be rescued.
The majority of the novel is set in London during the 1880s. A man has been tasked with the murder of a French woman and her baby. Unable to stomach the slaughter of an innocent babe he brings along two of Whitechapel’s whores to do the job for him while he sees to the mother. But around her neck is a locket. In it is a photograph which reveals a secret that would bring the government of England to its knees in the muck. By keeping this locket and demanding more money for its return, the murderer makes himself a target. The powers that be, and they are indeed powerful, feel there is only one option open to them. A man is called over from America. He will rid them of this pest and his whores. He is the Candle Man.
It isn’t long before matters are out of hand. The locket takes on a life of its own, moving from one person to another, with the Candle Man on its trail. Unfortunately for him, as soon as he discovers the locket’s existence, he realises that he too must be removed. And so we have the parallel story of the novel – the man brought into a London hospital with a stab wound but no memory. Only one person cares for him – a young woman Mary Kelly who claims she is his fiancee even though he has no recall of her.
The Candle Man is an extremely atmospheric and fast read. The government forces, the Candle Man and Mary Kelly all have a voice, each living in the back alleys or refined houses of late Victorian London. Some are deeply stirring while others chill the heart to the core. But above and beyond the stories surrounding the meaning of the locket, the identity of the man with no memory, is the destruction done to the women in Whitechapel. These famous Jack the Ripper murders are here given a new purpose and context. That removes nothing of their appalling horror. We are also given glimpses of other atrocities a continent away. The creation of a monster, maybe more than one, is the subject here.
This novel is steeped in the times. It’s pacey and it’s brutal while also mesmerising with the detail of history. It did intrude on my dreams. I think that is a worthy recommendation.