The House of Smoke | Sam Christer | 2016 (24 March) | Sphere | 453p | Review copy | Buy the book
As the bell tolls midnight on 31 December 1899 and a new century begins, Simeon Lynch sits chained in Newgate Gaol in London. He has just seventeen days until he will leave his cell for the last time and be hanged for murder. Seventeen days is a pitifully short measure of days when the eighteenth means death, but it is ample time to reflect on a life, even one as complicated and full as Simeon Lynch’s. Simeon isn’t after our sympathy. He is a cold-blooded killer and his career has been a glorious one, in the service of Professor Brogan Moriarty, brother – and equal – of the infamous James Moriarty, nemesis of none other than Sherlock Holmes.
And so, while Lynch waits for the noose, he tells us about his past, while regularly returning to the bleak present and the efforts of Sherlock Holmes to persuade Simeon to turn Queen’s evidence against Moriarty in return for his life. It is clear to Simeon that the prison walls can provide him no protection and, as the days go by, the odds on Simeon surviving long enough to meet his fate seem to shrink by the hour. But, as we are constantly reminded, Simeon is a killer, trained by the best of them.
The House of Smoke presents a shifting narrative that moves between Simeon’s present experiences in a brilliantly depicted and ugly Newgate and events in the 1890s when the young Simeon, already a murderer, is selected by Professor Moriarty for training amongst his curious, small band of lethal assassins. But there is a further shift as Simeon takes us a few years even further back, this time to his childhood, during which we witness the origins of Simeon’s murderous career.
Simeon is rarely alone. Even in his cell we meet a succession of guards and fellow prisoners, not to mention Holmes. But during his training in Moriarty’s grand mansion we watch Simeon’s interaction with other killers, male and female, and slowly we, like Simeon, uncover the personalities behind the veneer of violence, deceit and trickery. In Moriarty’s house, tricks are commonplace and it is a while before Simeon is trusted enough to join with Moriarty’s elite gang in their main aim of ridding London of a rival concern.
Sam Christer, a well know writer of contemporary mystery thrillers, does an excellent job of evoking the lost world of Victorian London, in particular Newgate, as well as the people who inhabited it. Simeon’s life is quite a story, full of ups and downs, and Sam Christer largely achieves his aim of making us sympathetic towards a man who thrives on violence and murder. This success is largely due to the context of Simeon’s life – Christer gives us the full background and the full design that created Simeon the murderer. And it’s hard not to feel sympathy for anyone in the power of Professor Moriarty, whose character is chillingly painted here in cold colours.
I enjoyed Christer’s depiction of late Victorian England very much. Simeon moves across a fair bit of the country, through cities (London and Birmingham and so on) and through the countryside – and, of course, into its prisons. Simeon is a good witness to what he sees. He thinks about it. But, although, I felt sympathy for the young Simeon, I didn’t especially like him. He’s prepared to care for people but he enjoys killing them when he has to. And this is true of other characters in the novel. They were intriguing but they weren’t likeable, even the clever Lady Elizabeth. The House of Smoke has a cool, dispassionate feel to it, as you’d perhaps expect from a novel featuring Sherlock Holmes and the House of Moriarty.
The House of Smoke is an intriguing Victorian mystery, packed with historical details and enlivened with twists, but ultimately I found it difficult to engage with. This might be because almost everyone in it is a villain or it may be because of its chilly tone. I’m not a big fan of Sherlock Holmes and so this probably coloured my reading of the book. Nevertheless, I admired The House of Smoke as a contribution to Holmesian fiction. It is undoubtedly clever and very well plotted with, it must be said, a superb conclusion.