Tag Archives: William Arrowood

‘The Murder Pit,’ by Mick Finlay

London in 1896, not the sophisticated, charming London of Sherlock Holmes, but the grungy, hardscrabble London of Holmes’s jealous rival, low-rent private investigator William Arrowood. Fat, heavy-drinking, gout-suffering Arrowood, who reads people’s faces and applies practical psychology to problems of crime. And who only seems to get noticed by the newspapers when he’s accused of some impropriety.

In The Murder Pit, second book in the series, Arrowood is hired by the Barclay family to make contact with their daughter Birdie. Birdie is mentally challenged, but is married to a son of a farming family in a village near London. For some reason her in-laws are preventing her from communicating with them, and they are worried about her.

It seems to be a truism in Arrowood’s life that all his clients lie to him. He knows the Barclays are concealing something. But it’s a job, and perhaps he can do some good. He and his assistant Barnett find the village economically depressed, and the farm people secretive, not hesitating to use violence to protect their privacy. Further investigation will reveal ties to a local insane asylum, and an important witness will disappear suspiciously. If Arrowood can unravel the mystery before the newspapers hound him out of business, he will be in a position to uncover a scandal at a very high level of society.

There are many good things to say about The Murder Pit. It will teach you much about the treatment of the mentally challenged in the 19th century, and of social conditions among the poor in the same period. My problem with this book (and the one before it) is that there’s not much fun here. I didn’t like the hero much, and there’s a sense of frustration and injustice throughout. Very likely it’s all true, too. But I don’t think I want to spend money on more of these stories.

Cautions for language and disturbing scenes.

‘Arrowood,’ by Mick Finlay

“Your deductions are more like Sherlock Holmes than you think,” I said when we were walking again.

“No, Barnett. I decipher people. He deciphers secret codes and flower beds. That man and I are not alike, and frankly I’m getting tired of your jibes about him.”

William Arrowood, hero of Mick Finlay’s new series of Victorian mysteries, of which Arrowood is the first, lives in the same fictional world inhabited by Sherlock Holmes. But Arrowood deeply resents his more famous rival, envying him his high fees and elite clientele. Holmes deducts through reason, but Arrowood likes to point out that real people are not reasonable. He himself is a self-taught psychologist (though he doesn’t use that word). He observes people’s moods and infers motives. It’s not an exact science, though, and he often makes mistakes. Which can be tragic.

Unlike the ordered world of the Holmes stories, which the modern reader can easily imagine comfortable and relaxing, Arrowood lives in chaos on a lower level of society. He inhabits cramped rooms behind a pudding shop, wearing shoes that don’t fit because new ones would cost money. He pines for his wife, who has left him, clinging to a blind belief that she’ll come back someday. He is fat, bald, bespectacled, and ugly. Also an alcoholic. His assistant and chronicler Norman Barnett is a big bruiser who feels guilty about his past. His own wife died recently, and he hasn’t been able to bring himself to tell anyone.

Sherlock Holmes would not have taken the case brought to them by a young French woman, Miss Caroline Cousture. She is looking for her brother, who has disappeared. Arrowood agrees to search for him because he needs the money, though he’s sure Miss Cousture has lied about something. He grows more concerned when he discovers that the brother has been working at a brewery owned by Stanley Cream, a powerful criminal kingpin with whom he has tangled before – at great cost. And when his best witness is ruthlessly murdered before his eyes, the case gets intensely personal.

I’m of two minds about this book. It appears to be well-researched, but the world it recreates is ugly, filthy, cramped, and uncomfortable. And William Arrowood, though he has his positive characteristics, is not really a character you long to get to know better.

But I went ahead and bought the next book in the series. Arrowood is worth reading, if you don’t mind ugly realism. Cautions for disturbing situations. References to Christianity were not disrespectful.