In the 1850s, taking the Queen’s shilling (enlisting) was for many the only escape from poverty, the workhouse, the prisons or even the noose. The streets of London, though, no matter the amount of grime and disease, were no preparation for the slaughter fields of the Crimean War. It’s difficult to blame orderly Jack Lark when he seizes an opportunity of chance and puts on the uniform of his dead officer and takes his identity for himself. With a history he needs to escape, this could be the solution he needs. Jack Lark becomes Captain Arthur Sloames of the Royal Fusiliers.
But the rank of officer comes with an enormous price – keeping himself and his men alive in the face of Russian attack not to mention disease and the horrendous conditions of life on the frontline. Soldiers and officers might be separated by class, education and wealth but enemy bullets don’t care. Unfortunately for Clark/Soames, though, it’s not just foreign enemies he must contend with.
The Scarlet Thief is a very fast punchy read. After an introduction set in the barracks in Aldershot in England, we are launched into preparations for the Battle of the Alma in the Crimea in 1854. From then on in, there is little time to draw a breath. Lark has to consolidate his stolen position while at the same time dealing with his own self-doubt and the problem of leading men when guiding an army has become an exercise in bureaucracy, filling in forms, paying for commissions, knowing the right person, saying the right thing. As a mudlark with an unruly tongue, Jack Lark is a man who makes enemies easily although he better than anyone is able to see through the disguise of riches to asses the true nature of his brother officers. Many have the best of intentions. If only Lark didn’t have to keep looking over his shoulder.
My knowledge about the Crimean War is strictly limited to Florence Nightingale. I welcome, then, the chance to be given a peep inside an unfamiliar period. The Battle of Alma and the general conditions of fighting a war with far too few resources in the mud of the Crimea are told very well indeed. Characters come and go through the pages and I wanted to know more about most of them. These are terrible days, though. Not all will live long enough for us to get to know. But I would have welcomed the chance to have spent more time in Collard’s capable storytelling hands, being given more background about events and characters, not feeling that it was all such a rush.
The Scarlet Thief is a debut novel and it is an encouraging one. Jack Lark is an extremely interesting character and it is more than apparent that Collard knows his Crimean history very well just as he can also write very well. Unfortunately, the pace and brevity of The Scarlet Thief don’t do Collard the justice he deserves. I never like comparisons between books – for instance, thrillers hailed as the new Dan Brown or historical military fiction given the title of the ‘new Sharpe’ – I’m not a fan of either Brown or Sharpe. In this case, the similarities with Sharpe are very clear. The Scarlet Thief is catchy, exciting, violent and strongly driven by an intriguing and virulent leading male. No doubt he is also handsome but it’s difficult to tell as so little time is spent on the details. I do hope that in the next novel Collard is allowed to take his time, to develop more of his own voice and to expand on his undoubted historical knowledge and storytelling abilities. Given that chance, this could turn into a fascinating and thrilling new series.