D.E. Meredith’s Devoured was a fine introduction to Victorian forensic scientist Professor Adolphus Hatton and his assistant in the morgue Albert Roumande. This second novel, The Devil’s Ribbon, however, is superb.
Set in the heart of hot, steamy and diseased London, Hatton and Roumande don’t just have the sad choleric remains of the poor to deal with, they are also faced with a series of brutal murders. The victims are all very different, both poor and old, but Hatton and Roumande are pioneers of forensic science, including the latest technique of all – fingerprinting. Uniquely and originally, they have the method to put the pieces together. The intellectual detachment of science, though, is more of a goal than a reality – our two heroes are never far removed from the horrific reality of it all.
There are complications. The case tests Hatton’s heart as much as his mind. Mrs McCarthy, the beautiful young widow of one of the victims, adds a sense of urgency to Hatton’s efforts, reminding him of another time in his life while enriching our knowledge of this very likable scientist detective.
London in the mid 19th century had dangers quite apart from the regular outbreaks of cholera. The Irish nationalist movement was growing in vigour and violence, asserting itself among the factories and slums of London, largely due to the huge numbers of Irish refugees concentrated in the poorest parts of the city, the human aftermath of one of the great disasters of the century, the Irish Potato Famine. The repercussions of this tragedy and the potential, even likelihood, for further violence is never far from the surface of The Devil’s Ribbon.
This is a deeply atmospheric novel, rich in historic detail. You can almost imagine yourself walking alongside Hatton and Roumande through London’s poorest streets, or taking tea in the parlours of Highgate. The confident chemistry between the two scientists is offset by their suspicion of dandy Inspector Grey. This detective might be a lowly policeman but there is nothing humble or modest about him. Victorian forensic science mixes effectively with the harrowing historical accounts of Ireland and the violent unrest in London’s streets. It is an interesting blend of science, history and poetry.
I must mention the book itself. Just like its predecessor Devoured, The Devil’s Ribbon hardback is a thing of beauty. Quite apart from the stunning dust jacket, the cover beneath is equally striking. Appropriately there is a ribbon to mark your progress through the attractively scripted pages. I read The Devil’s Ribbon in a single sitting. I was unable to put it down. Beautifully written and utterly compelling, the novel’s characters linger in the mind, as does the world it evokes. A wonderful reading experience.