Book review: Arrowood by Mick Finlay

Arrowood by Mick Finlay
Arrowood by Mick Finlay
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Celebrated London detective Sherlock Holmes might be the master of deduction but he has serious flaws… his prices are prohibitive and he doesn’t understand people.

Fortunately for those in the mean, overcrowded streets south of the murky River Thames, there is another private investigator, a man who not only charges less than the Baker Street genius, but can also see into people’s souls.

While London’s wealthy high society take their problems to Holmes, everyone else goes to William Arrowood, down-at-heel sleuth, occasional drunkard and self-taught psychologist.

Welcome to Glasgow-born Mick Finlay’s stunningly dark and atmospheric crime debut, a murder thriller that imagines a corner of Sherlock Holmes’ capital city in 1895, a place where the poor are hungry, crime bosses are taking control… and the streets are very different to the ones inhabited by Conan Doyle’s famous investigator.

Finlay teaches in a psychology department but before becoming an academic he was a man of many parts, including running a market stall on Portobello Road, working as a tent-hand in a travelling circus, as a butcher’s boy, a hotel porter, and in various jobs in the NHS and social services.

And it is perhaps this eclectic career that led him to the unwholesome back streets of late 19th century London and the creation of the indomitable Arrowood, a shambling but ‘emotional agent’ who is led by his senses rather than his clues, and despises the ‘deductive’ Holmes, his wealthy clientele and his showy forensic approach to crime.

Arrowood’s sidekick, Norman Barnett, a former clerk who sprung from one of the city’s notorious courts, is certainly no Dr Watson; he knows what it is to have lived amidst filth, despair and human degradation.

Down-to-earth Barnett also knows that emotions are both Arrowood’s strength and his weakness, and that is why they make an unlikely but effective team. Together they fight crime, and their patch is sleazy Southwark, a far cry from Sherlock’s upmarket Marylebone in the City of Westminster.

It’s 1895, the Afghan War is over and a deal with the restless Irish appears to have brought an end to sectarian violence. In London, the wealthy party while the underclasses are tempted into lives of crime, drugs and prostitution. Politicians are embroiled in financial and sexual scandals, and the police don’t have the resources to deal with everything that goes on in the capital.

The rich turn to Holmes for help but in densely populated south London, which the great man rarely visits, the person to see is Arrowood, the private investigator who is adept at ‘reading people.’

And when French woman Constance Cousture walks into his rooms seeking help to find her missing brother Thierry, a worker at a local chophouse, Arrowood fears the worst. The owner of the Barrel of Beef is Stanley Cream, the vicious gang leader at the centre of a case which went badly wrong for Arrowood and Barnett a few years ago.

Even though Cream threatened to kill the detectives if he ever saw them again, Arrowood takes on the dangerous investigation but soon his principal lead, the missing man’s girlfriend, is viciously stabbed to death outside a local churchyard.

With possible links to Irish rebels, the Fenians, and police corruption, this case is set to be the detectives’ toughest quest yet…

It’s no surprise that there are already plans for a TV adaptation of Arrowood with Kathy Burke signed up as Executive Producer. This is a story that packs a powerful punch… the intricate, cleverly crafted plot weaves between Arrowood’s shabby rooms behind a pudding shop and some of Victorian London’s most miserable streets, public houses and dwelling places.

And there are people here we can all recognise – some good, some bad and some, like Arrowood, who possess the larger-than-life vividness of a Dickens novel – but all are flawed and essentially real, their vices and vulnerabilities part of the fabric of this teeming, tumultuous city.

Using his vast research into 19th century life, crime, policing, early theories of psychology and the Fenian bombing campaign in London, Finlay has given us both an extraordinary new perspective on a literary giant, and an exciting alternative to the Victorian crime genre.

With murder, intrigue, dark humour, compelling characters and an extraordinary backdrop, it’s to be hoped that Arrowood is just the opener for a thrilling and original new series.

(HQ, hardback, £12.99)