Honor’s Kingdom opens in the summer of 1862 in a London morgue, where a diverse group including Charles Francis Adams (son of John Quincy Adams and ambassador to the Court of St. James), his son Henry, an English Foreign Office official, a London policeman and a surgeon are gathered, along with the hero and narrator of the book, Abel Jones. Jones is a native of Wales and a veteran of the East India Company’s wars, but he’s now a major in the U.S. army and a secret agent of the American government.
He and the Adamses are there because the deceased, a Rev. Campbell (whose body was discovered in a basket of live eels), was an American. He was also (though they’re not mentioning this) another secret agent, and he had been investigating rumors that some British ship builder is building a warship for the Confederacy, in spite of the official neutrality of the government.
Ambassador Adams assigns Major Jones to find out who killed Campbell, and what it was he’d learned that got him (and two previous agents) killed.
Jones, in his methodical way, sets about an investigation which takes him from the halls of Parliament and the finest homes of West End London to the most miserable, soul-grinding slums of the city. He meets the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, as well as a colorful variety of thieves, pimps, con men, music hall entertainers and prostitutes. Eventually his investigation extends to Glasgow, which is (amazing to tell) an even more miserable place to be poor in than London. His life is threatened by (among others) footpads, East Indian assassins and a mysterious man in a red silk mask. He chances to encounter Anthony Trollope, James McNeil Whistler, Karl Marx and William Booth along the way.
It’s jolly fun—exciting, engaging and sometimes moving. Educational, too.
The best thing about the book (and this is saying a great deal) is the character of the narrator, Abel Jones. Abel Jones is (brace yourself) a devout Methodist Christian. He reads his Bible and prays daily, and struggles constantly to reconcile his unsavory work with his many religious scruples. He disapproves of drinking, dancing, the theater, gambling, and extravagance, for starters. Thrust more than once into situations of sexual temptation, he remains adamantly faithful to his beloved wife, avoiding as much as possible even a glance at a woman’s ankle. There’s some humor in this, but it’s gentle humor.
Jones is not the typical adventure hero, even aside from his Christianity. He’s small of stature and (he freely admits) not very handsome. He carries a bad war wound that forces him to walk with a cane. Yet he’s bold as a lion in danger, fiercely devoted to his adopted country, and compassionate with those less fortunate. Although he’s not slow to judge the morals and behavior of others, he reserves his strongest judgments for himself.
He is, in short, one of the very few believable and sympathetic Protestant Christian characters I’ve encountered in good contemporary fiction.
The author stumbles in the Christian area from time to time, I must admit. Jones’ grasp of theology seems rather weak for a devoted church-goer. This is the only failure of research I was able to discern in the book. I’m not, of course, an expert on Victorian England, but if Parry is faking his history and descriptions, he’s doing a good job of it. My impression is that his recreation of the place and times is as good as George MacDonald Fraser’s legendary work in the Flashman novels.
In fact, it’s hard to read this book without thinking of Flashman. Abel Jones is kind of a reverse Flashman—small and homely where Flashman is big and handsome, decent and brave where Flashman is scoundrely, lascivious and cowardly.
But if you want another comparison, I couldn’t help thinking that, if you like Father Ailill in my Erling books, you’ll probably like Abel Jones too.
Honor’s Kingdom gets my highest recommendation. I very much look forward to reading the other novels in the series.
(By the way, Owen Parry is a pseudonym for the military historian Ralph Peters, whom you may have heard many times on conservative talk radio.)