Mathew’s Tale | Quintin Jardin | 2014 (Pb 2015) | Headline | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book
In 1818, after seven long years, Mathew Jardine returns home from war to Lanarkshire in Scotland, a hero of the Battle of Waterloo. The cost has been great – one eye is gone, half his face scarred and another scar shows where a sword pierced his liver and almost claimed his life. In fact, Mathew returns home a ghost. His exhausted, well-meaning captain had believed the doctors when they said Mathew would die and so he wrote Mathew’s mother and betrothed a letter that would break their hearts. Mathew always loved Lizzie but returning home, believed a dead man, he finds her married to another man and near ready to give birth. But Mathew is a deeply principled, honourable man. Instead of turning against Lizzie’s husband David, he chooses to befriend him, slowly forming another of those close relationships that distinguishes Mathew’s life. But Mathew isn’t just a kind and reasonable man, he is also a warrior, a man who has killed, and it is that side of him that knows he can never forgive the Cleland twins, Gregor and Gavin, the local lords, for their behaviour towards his family and the men who work their land.
Mathew is an ‘Iron Baron’, one of the new businessmen who knows how to profit from the rise of the Industrial Revolution. He has the magic touch. He is soon a wealthy, influential and important man, living a life to rival, even surpass, that of the Cleland baronets. When tragedy strikes, Mathew has to choose between the sword or legal justice, always conscious of his responsibility towards others. But vengeance will be had, however long it takes, and it is that quest for vengeance that forms Mathew’s tale.
Mathew’s Tale is a thoroughly engaging novel with a central character in Mathew who is completely captivating. It starts quietly enough as we learn of Mathew’s war and journey home but the quality of the prose, which feels authentically early 19th-century and has such a skilled lightness about it, sucks the reader in and it becomes an addictive read. I really struggled to put this book down. I became completely caught up in this story of Mathew, Lizzie, David and Mathew’s mother. Each of the characters is fully rounded, their dialogue presented in varying degrees of Scottish dialect, and they are each surrounded by a host of other more minor, always fascinating, figures who make up this vividly-depicted historical world.
Quite apart from the plot, which is never less than engrossing, the book’s appeal lies in the masterly ease with which Quintin Jardine portrays the historical setting, the Scottish location and early 19th-century society and law. This is a fascinating time, with the old feudal ways co-existing with an emerging industrial society. Men such as Mathew can rise from a considerably lowly status – in the army as well as in life in general – and they can outshine the oldest families. Money takes on aristocratic lineage and new wealth can have a lot more clout than old. Of course, if you’re unfortunate enough to have neither new or old money, then you need to watch out. Life is as cruel as ever for the poor. Mathew bridges old and new and, as a result, his tale is as much about the times as it is about the murder case. Both are gripping and wonderfully done.
Mathew’s Tale is full of colour, immersing the reader in a bygone age with deceptive ease. It is such a pleasure to read, its moral and social lessons never getting in the way of a fine story. Quintin Jardin has written a great many novels over the years – mostly modern crime fiction – and I’m sorry to admit that this is my first. This isn’t a period of history I’m naturally drawn to but once I started I did not want to stop. Mathew is a fabulous creation but there is more to Mathew’s Tale than just its leading figure. This is a highly accomplished, sensitive novel, enriched by great storytelling, characterisation and historical setting and mood. I absolutely loved it.