The bowler hat on the cover is the first clue. Leonard’s chosen genre is the Victorian mystery, whose iconography — sulfurous fog, hansom cabs — had already been fixed in Conan Doyle’s lifetime. Somehow, the narrow cobblestoned streets that urban planners couldn’t wait to get rid of have lived on in fiction, accommodating many generations of authorial foot traffic.
For a newcomer, the only remaining mystery is how to find a route that hasn’t been trod into the mud. Leonard’s solution is to locate the exact historical point when Victorian bled into Edwardian — or, if you like, when the old girl died and passed on her throne to her corpulent wastrel son — and to cast his story with real people engaged in real intrigues. Chief among them is William Melville, a “big bullock of an Irishman” who has “risen from beat constable to Detective Chief Melville of Scotland Yard, champion of British justice — or notorious thug, depending on which papers you read — and bodyguard to emperors, foreign and domestic.”
In this latter capacity, he is alarmed to learn that a shadowy figure named Akushku (who might be Russian or Latvian, anarchist or czarist) is plotting to disrupt Victoria’s funeral by assassinating Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II. Like me, you may have a hard time working up a lather over the kaiser’s fate, knowing he lived long enough to start one world war and witness another. Leonard intelligently grounds the plot in the geopolitical paranoia of fin-de-siecle Europe, where anarchists have already claimed the lives of Alexander II of Russia, the Austrian empress, and the prime minister of Spain, and where one tinder threatens to blow the whole chain of alliances sky high.
Leonard — a screenwriter and author of the YA “Crusher” crime thriller series — wisely gives Melville a real-life crime-solving buddy in Gustav Steinhauer, bodyguard to the kaiser. Steinhauer has a mysterious provenance of his own and may be something less than a buddy and more like a nemesis, but he’s swept up as we are in the book’s action, which spins from stately homes to bawdy houses and railway stations. There’s an Italian beauty fallen on hard times. There’s a lady’s fan that, Oscar Wilde-style, escapes one particular lady. There’s an abundance of corpses. In short, it’s all great fun.
The research can sound awkward to the modern ear — “That damned Jew Dreyfus has done more damage to France than a whole army of Germans,” says a French colonel — and Melville’s Irish brogue can tilt to the vaudevillian: “Name of Jaysus, Sally.” But, under the author’s sure hand, Melville becomes a leader of men: “All leave for the next fortnight has already been canceled, but now you’ll be working weekends too, and every hour God sent until these two men are caught. Forget about sick leave, I don’t care if you’re at death’s door. I don’t care if you’re dead. We have seven days and I want an arrest in two.”
Meanwhile, the dead city, in its gorgeous squalor, lives: “the black churning Thames dense with smoking barges . . . a rabbit-warren of slums where tattered grey washing hung limply from lines across the street.” As does the district of Whitechapel, minus its Ripper: “Here the shadows teemed with life; I caught the flare of a match lighting up a huddle of beggars sharing a clay pipe, and farther on two shapes in a dark doorway that resolved themselves as we passed — a young woman with her hair cropped short, lifting her skirts for a soldier.” Old London, it turns out, still has plenty of shades of gray.
Louis Bayard is the author of “Mr. Timothy” and “The Pale Blue Eye.”
M, King’s Bodyguard
By Niall Leonard
Pantheon. 272 pp. $27