Mulholland Books | 2017, Pb 2018 | 247p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1849 and Canadian Diligence Matheson has arrived in Hull to search for the bones of the apostle Simon the Zealot, believed to have been buried somewhere in Lincolnshire following his execution by the Romans in their fort at Caistor. With Matheson as bodyguard and companion is Meshach Stone, a former soldier who is tortured by his experiences of war in Afghanistan. Both men find themselves in another hell on Earth. The city of Hull is gripped by an outbreak of cholera that is wiping out almost whole families and streets, leaving behind the wails and torment of the bereft. Stone has hopes of finding redemption in Hull but instead he finds dead the woman he so wanted to love. There are so many dead but this woman’s death was not through cholera – she was murdered. And she is not the only one. Driven almost mad by his need for vengeance, Stone must hunt down the murderer in a city where Death roams freely and hell awaits around every dark corner.
David Mark is familiar to many as the author of the McAvoy contemporary police detective series but in The Zealot’s Bones he picks up the reins of a historical murder mystery for the first time – and I am so glad he did. The Zealot’s Bones is nothing short of brilliant and is one of the finest historical novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year.
The writing is superb. This is a dark, gruesome and twisted tale and through it walk the damned and the afflicted. And David Mark brings both the locations and characters to life with the most gorgeously vivid prose. The dialogue is wonderful and often extremely witty as we know well that what a character says need not be at all what he or she means. This is an age of manners and etiquette and sometimes not even murder is allowed to interfere with that. When one memorably odious character meets Matheson and Stone, he utters ‘I… extend the hand of welcome, even if I would rather chew it off’ and this sums up the hypocrisy of this impoverished, plague-ridden and cruel Victorian world. It also made me chuckle.
Stone is a fabulous creation. In many ways he believes that he is as evil as the monster he hunts and his body is as scarred as he believes his soul must also be. We’re taken deep into his troubled mind and it isn’t always a gentle place to be but there is a kindness about Stone, a willingness to change his life, that makes his experiences here all the more painful and meaningful to read about. His relationship with the rather lovely and charming Diligence Matheson is tender and enjoyable. I loved Diligence’s quest for the Zealot’s bones. He’s so easily distracted but he too has something to prove.
There are some fantastic characters in The Zealot’s Bones, whether they’re good or evil. The ratcatcher is quite a scene stealer and there are other intriguing men and women who make brief but colourful cameos. The murders are horrendous, their victims utterly pitiful and the murderer an abomination. This is gruesome stuff and I found it impossible to tear my eyes away. And all is set against the most perfectly described backdrops of a city devastated by death and mourning and a wonderfully creepy country house, likewise caught in the grip of something dreadful and disturbing. Increasing the mood are Stone’s haunted memories and dreams of his experiences in Afghanistan. It’s all mesmerising and every line of fine prose does its job to hook the reader in and keep them there.
I hope so much that Meshach Stone returns. If he does, that book will go straight to the top of my reading pile with no shadow of doubt.