Soot by Andrew Martin

Corsair | 2017 (6 July) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Soot by Andrew MartinIt is November 1799 and York freezes under a blanket of snow. Life is especially grim for Fletcher Rigge, a gentleman who has fallen on hard times, who languishes in York’s debtor’s prison. An unexpected opportunity for release comes in the form of a proposition from a Captain Harvey. The Captain’s father, a painter of silhouette portraits or shades, has been murdered and Harvey is convinced that one of his last sitters was the one to do the deed. If Rigge can discover which it was within a month then the Captain will clear all of his debts. All Rigge has to go on is the outline of a face’s profile, a hat, a pet dog – this will be no easy task – but Rigge is a gifted and observant man. He is also on the verge of desperation.

It doesn’t take Rigge long to identify the shades’ six subjects – their shadows – and in their pursuit Rigge moves across York and further afield to London. His investigations take him into the assembly rooms of the fashionable, into literary circles, into the world of the theatre (in which an unpopular actor is lucky if the missiles lobbed at him miss), of gambling and seedy inns populated by prostitutes, thugs and spies. Much of what happens is told in Rigge’s own words via his journal entries, but we’re also given other viewpoints thanks to the letters and diaries of others involved in the case. Watching over it all are the lawyers, who seem more interested in Rigge’s own story than in the murder he’s investigating.

I adored Soot and the reasons for this are many. It’s a far more sophisticated plot than is first revealed and it is uncovered in an increasing number of layers. Plenty of perspectives are given and, as the novel proceeds, they change our opinion of almost everything. Nobody is safe. As time goes by, we learn that we’re not quite certain where we stand. Some of the ‘interpolations’ suggest that there is at least one perspective written with the benefit of hindsight. The lawyers make a brilliant contribution to the style of the novel as well as its plot. And because we can have two commentators interpreting one scene, we’re given intriguing insights. A character might think that his true nature is revealed, while another voice makes it clear that it isn’t. There is delicious irony at work here, which fits in so well with this late Georgian age of coffee houses, literary musings, hedonism and theatrical entertainments.

There are several thoroughly enjoyable character portraits in Soot – at first, they appear as shadows or shades but, as the pages go by, we learn much more than they would wish to give away. The most fascinating character for me, though, is Rigge himself. We know very little about him at the beginning and he doesn’t give much away but there is quite a journey ahead as his past and his beliefs become known. There is one moment in particular when I raged at him, and another that shocked me as Rigge truly surprised me, but I never stopped hoping for the best. It’s an incredible story, slowly built up with great skill by the author.

I loved the style of Soot with its multitude of voices, each individual and so evocative of the times. The language captures the spirit of the very late 18th century but it doesn’t labour it. It is never hard work to read. Instead, the narrative is light, witty and very clever, rich in social commentary, humour, irony and, now and again, sarcasm. At times they invite the reader in for intimacy while at other times they keep us at bay.

Soot does such a good job of bringing the Georgian world of York and London to life, with its fashions, pleasure-seeking, hypocrisy and sins. It’s a fascinating world in which morality occupies an uncomfortable space, as shown by the enigmatic, troubled and so likeable Fletcher Rigge.

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