One of the great things about living in central London is that books set in the city usually refer to streets and landmarks that are instantly familiar. Nicola Upson’s fictional policeman Archie Penrose lives on the same road as me and Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London opens with a murder in my local churchyard. My latest read, Summon up the Blood by R N Morris is set around London’s West End, incorporating landmarks which will be instantly recognisable to most Londoners.
Set in 1914, the book opens with the murder of Jimmy, young male prostitute, by a clearly well-to-do killer. Responsibility for investigating the murder is given to Detective Inspector Silas Quinn of the Special Crimes Department who is plunged into the shadowy world of rent boys and the paying customers who prey on the poverty of those prepared to sell their bodies for money. As more young men are killed, Quinn and his team follow a trail of blood and vice which leads them to an exclusive gentlemen’s club in the heart of the West End.
This is the first book that I’ve read by R N Morris and I was particularly impressed by the cast of characters he created. Silas Quinn, we are told, has a history of violence towards suspects in his previous cases, but he doesn’t have the lack of complexity that we might associate with this type of policeman. Instead, he is confused and disturbed by the explicit images he finds in gay literature and possibly to counteract this, he alternately attracts and repels the amorous Miss Dillard, a fellow lodger in his boarding house. There is a moving scene when he recognises the slightly absurd Miss Dillard as a vulnerable human being like himself. Other characters are also given substance, including the outspoken Detective Sergeant Inchball and his colleague DS Macadam whose pride and joy is the 1912 Ford Model T police car which he is allowed to drive.
I thought the book was forthright in its depiction of male prostitution and also recognised that in the hedonistic London lifestyle it was sometimes difficult to distinguish who was exploiting whom. The book also gave wonderfully evocative descriptions of London venues at that time, many of which are still going, including the Criterion bar/restaurant which was a meeting place for the gay community.
Although the book was set in 1914, it had a Victorian feel to it, despite the presence of the model T Ford and other Edwardian inventions, which I liked. The blurb at the back of the book quoted the ‘turbulent months leading up to World War I’ which I thought was slightly misleading as there wasn’t a pre-war feel to the book. It was also possibly not the author’s intention as I thought the book cleverly created the atmosphere of a post-Victorian hangover.
Summon up the Blood was a very enjoyable read and I believe there is second book featuring Silas Quinn coming soon – I’m looking forward to it.
I borrowed this book from the library. The author’s website is here.