The Infidel Stain | M.J. Carter | 2015, Pb 2016 | Penguin Fig Tree | 355p | Review copy | Buy the book
***The paperback of The Infidel Stain has been published in 2016 under the new title of The Printer’s Coffin.***
The year is 1841 and Captain William Avery has sold his commission and returned from India to England. His peaceful and unsatisfactory life in the west country is interrupted by a message from Jeremiah Blake, Avery’s partner in investigations in India, asking him to meet him in London immediately. Their superior in India has put another case their way. Aristocrat and reformer Viscount Allington wants them to investigate the especially brutal and bloody murders of two London printers, both of whom had their faces and hands pressed deeply into ink, their bodies discovered draped over their printing presses. The ‘new police’ have shown little interest in linking or solving the crimes. Lord Allington wants the murderer found, removed from the streets. Only then will his lordship be able to continue his good works and the worthy poor return their focus to the salvation of their souls.
The investigations take Blake and Avery into the rotten heart of London’s filthy streets. This is the time of the Corn Laws, the Chartists and extreme poverty and injustice. It is also very cold. The contrast to India is difficult for Avery to handle. Blake is remote once more – there is more on his mind than he will admit and he’s clearly not well. But as the pair dig deeper into the stews of Soho and the Rooks they are drawn together once more as they combine their heartfelt drive to put right the injustices and hardships they uncover. The bodies accumulate in a city that has rebellion on its mind. Avery and Blake are caught up in it, violence and corruption on every side, murder and venality underfoot, and trapped in the middle are the innocents, or those who used to be innocent but have now lost it in an effort to stay alive.
The Infidel Stain is an immensely powerful book. For the first half, I enjoyed a compelling and intriguing murder mystery, involving disguise, subterfuge and cunning, but in the second half everything explodes as we gradually learn the wider context of the crimes – I was riveted to every single page. I became extremely stirred up! I was enraged by the conditions on London’s poorest streets, so expertly and evocatively recreated by M.J. Carter. I remember reading the leaflets and petitions of Chartists and reformers when I was at University and when I read this I wanted to read every one of them again. The Infidel Stain made me angry with Victorian complacency and hypocrisy to a degree that I haven’t felt in a long time.
M.J. Carter expertly gives us a focus for our anger – young Matty, a street seller who found one of the bodies, and her small brother. These two people aren’t sentimentalised, they’re no angels (on the contrary), but they bring home in a powerful and emotional fashion the nature of a child’s life in London’s prisons, London’s streets – or on the streets of any city – for those for whom there is no family or state to care. I cried as I raged.
But quite apart from the story of these two siblings, M.J. Carter brings 1840s’ London to life, from its pubs (I couldn’t resist looking them all up) and shops to its workhouses and prisons. The streets themselves are vividly realised. You can almost smell the stench and feel the weight of the muck on your trousers or skirt hems. Without doubt, The Infidel Stain presents the most compelling portrait of early Victorian London I’ve read since I devoured The Quincunx by Charles Palliser many years ago. This is also the time when newspapers began to be circulated, their stamp duty abolished so that the poor could read, or learn to read, the press for the first time. The rise of journalism (and the police force) is an important theme in The Infidel Stain and it’s a fascinating one.
The mystery itself is an extremely good one. It kept me gripped throughout the book and it was a worthy mystery for our two fine ‘detectives’ to investigate. While you don’t need to have read the preceding The Strangler Vine to enjoy The Infidel Stain, I think the latter works even better if you have. The Strangler Vine is a fantastic novel, as rich in Indian colour and atmosphere as The Infidel Stain oozes London grime and injustice. It also guides us through the uneasy relationship between Avery and Blake in a way that is wonderfully sensitive. There is so much unsaid in this relationship, so many character changes that have taken place in both men as they each allow themselves to be known, that it is an absolute treat to see this develop further in The Infidel Stain.
Captain Avery notes at one point that London, the world, is growing noisy. The printing presses, the steam engine railways, new farming and industrial machinery, the calls to arms of the militants – everything is changing and this superb novel captures the moment perfectly. No longer can the poor rely on aristocratic charity – they need laws. M.J. Carter takes us into both worlds, one struggling in its death throes, the other struggling to be born, and Avery and Blake are our guides. I thought it would be difficult for The Strangler Vine to be topped but The Infidel Stain is a book of the year for me and it’s one I’ll remember for a long time.