“There is little point in railing against circumstances one cannot change”.
So speaks Dansey to the novel’s ineffectual hero, Thomas Shield. Thomas’ counter is that “A man believes in Providence because to do otherwise would force him to see his life as an arbitrary affair.” It is this philosophical tussle that sets the intelligence of the novel. However, it is the oldest of literary devices – the amours between man and woman – that sets the emotional context behind the folly of all actions. Taylor puts this plainly to his reader when he has Shield speak directly to us of Mrs Frant: “What you must realise is that she was beautiful, and her beauty had the power to invest the simplest words with charm. In her company I was like a man in the desert who stumbles on a pool of clear water…You will understand nothing of what follows unless you understand that.” I find this curious. Here is not an author asking to make of his art what he will, but to explicitly guide us on a journey to a definite end. There is naught else to do than follow.
Thomas Shield is an errant who has thrown away his Waterloo medal by 1819 and suffered a period of his life as though he should be in the Bedlam; our protagonist is an atypical pre-Victorian magister with a small £103 inheritance and a need to reassert himself in life. A man ripe for the plucking by Fortune’s wont. The “school” that employs him also has Edgar Allan (Poe) as a student – he is the titular character of the novel. A boy with a doppelganger in one Charles Frant, son of the beautiful Mrs Frant. The novel develops pace swiftly with the enigmatic “bird’s nest beard” stranger who has an unhealthy interest in Edgar Allan, rumbling on to the first action that sets the mystery of our novel. Namely, the collapse of the Wavenhoe Bank and the murder of the unloved Mr Frant.
In spite of his failure to understand the enormous eddies beginning to swirl around him, Mr Shields finds that the American Boy gives him the opportunities he seeks to be close to the enigmatic and utterly beautiful Sophia Frant. He finds himself drawn by the boorish Mr Carswell to Gloucestershire, to his seat at Monkshill. There to become a reluctant sleuth as the crafted facades of the upper classes crack to reveal a thin veneer of murder, ambition, bitterness and revenge. There is the widowed beautiful Mrs Frant, the prettily terse Miss Carswell, the embittered Mrs Johnson, the baroneted Sir George Ruispidge and his Captain brother – who play suitors to the first two -, Carswell himself and finally, the American, Mr Noakes and his valet, Salutation Harmwell. A mire of studied revenge seeps through the miasma that encloses the stately home and its bountiful park. A revenge that is dressed by Noakes as justice when he finally outlines his beliefs to Mr Shield.
Thomas is curiously moral, strictly unyielding in his courtesies and drifts between the Georgian world of servant and master. Erudite, conscionable in all he does, polite to a fault, clear-thinking in his suspicions, he dares to reach beyond his station and find a love that many would never strive for in this strictly classed society. Able to withstand the pains of claustrophobia in Iversen’s coffin, confident yet impassioned in his defence of Sophia’s honour, he is a hero upon which the title is both sorely unwanted and hardly known at the time.
Yet, hero he is as he shatters the ice around the entire sorry tale of Mr David Poe that has chased Carswell, Frant and the Wavenhoe Bank back from sordid gutters of Kingston, Upper Canada to the dissolute harshness of the final year of George III’s reign. An immensely likeable character, we are pleased at the dénouement, at the revealed tapestry and what he wins in the last pages.
Taylor’s style is short, punchy. Each chapter only averages six pages and yet he delivers each in a crisp manner that satisfies the literary hunger. If I had been handed the book and been told the author was writing in the nineteenth or early twentieth century then the style would have given me no pause to query such a claim. It is this that makes Taylor not just an author but a literary artist. The tone, substance, characterisation would fit amongst the James, the Poe, the Radcliffe, even the, Collins or Austen with ease. He pulls together a linguistic culture that reflects the mores of period, a gentility of speech and action with the underlying violence that is almost Dickensian in craft. It is to be applauded.
“Ayez peur” is the cackling call of the bird of dire omen. Veritas vos liberabit is the human riposte. A truth that makes Taylor’s novel one of those must-reads for anyone who delves into the murder mystery genre, or has an interest in the subject matter of one Edgar Allan Poe. The master himself would have been proud to have written this one.
Categories: Andrew Taylor