Goodness me, what a good read this was on several levels! Published in 2003 and bought by Mum two years later, it impressed me so much with the attention to period detail as well as the story itself. What we have here is a modern writer presenting a Regency era murder mystery – one could be forgiven for thinking it was created by a contemporary of Jane Austen, not a twentieth century author. Its a classic nineteenth century style tale of an impoverished and undistinguished man who through luck and courage improves his circumstances, and eventually makes an ‘advantageous match’. I really enjoyed this.
The narrator is one Thomas Shield. He’s a young schoolteacher with a bit of a ‘past’, who takes up a position at a school in the leafy village of Stoke Newington, run by the marvellously unpleasant Mr Bransby. The brutality of the English public school system is evident, and used nicely to indicate Shields sensitivity. We read about the arrival of a new boy, Charles Frant, and his friend, who turns out to be the American boy of the title, the young Edgar Allan Poe. Cleverly, Mr Taylor does not make Poe the central character, choosing instead to give some elegant, thinly disguised nods to Poe’s later writings – a horrid parrot reminiscent of Poe’s raven, a scene where Thomas Shield fears he is about to be buried alive. The real relevance of Poe to the story is only revealed at the end.
Through his friendship with the boys and subsequent relationship with the families, Shield is asked to become their private tutor at a country house in Gloucestershire. Events start to unfold rapidly – Shields attraction to two women, the collapse of Frant’s father’s bank, a gruesome murder and dismemberment, an incident in an ice house….its all there, with the squalor of big money and illicit sex providing an almost modern seasoning.
The prose is in a perfect Regency tone. There are wonderful descriptive passages about the London Rookeries, the squalid slums surrounding St Giles; travel by coach; the desperation of the poor in a pre welfare state England. Shield himself is young, and more than a little interested in sex; he fantasises about almost every woman he encounters.
I thought Mr Taylor’s use of language, and his blend of historical fact – Edgar Allan Poe did go to school in England, and wrote about his experiences later – with a satisfyingly mysterious whodunnit was excellent. If you have read and enjoyed Sarah Waters, you’ll love this. Big thumbs up – and as always, if you’d like this book, let me know and it will become yours!