by Stephen Gallagher
A fast paced thriller with a touch of the supernatural. The Kingdom of Bones starts out a regular Victorian crime story with a dash of limelight and greasepaint, but quickly develops into something more deeply nuanced; a supernatural tale, peopled with strange and shady characters; a tale of obsessive, unrequited love.
The story opens in the world of Victorian British provincial theatre, where Tom Sayers, a once-successful professional boxer, is now stage manager with a touring company. Set up for a murder he didn’t commit, Tom is forced to flee to America where he scrapes a mean living as a fairground prize-fighter – And here the story takes a supernatural twist: Tom hasn’t come to America simply to escape a murder charge, he is tracking Louise – the young singer with his company – convinced she has become possessed by The Wanderer, a demon that bestows youth and near-immortality in exchange for a regular diet of murder and blood. Tom’s only purpose in life has become to find Louise and save her from her fate. Quite why Tom dedicates his life to this quest I never could quite figure out. Louise seems a vain and silly, self-obsessed creature who has no interest whatsoever in Tom and demonstrates her disinterest by pushing him under a train. You’d think that would be enough to kill most men’s ardour, but that, I suppose, is the nature of obsession.
The pace never flags as the story moves smoothly from Britain in 1888, to America, fifteen years later. The characterisation is especially good. Poor, stolid, obsessive Tom Sayers being the best. The protagonist detective Sebastian Becker is a less interesting creation, a more conventional figure, but very well-drawn and entirely believable. Bram Stoker was a wonderfully dour addition to the cast; I loved the idea that Tom Sayers’s monster might have inspired ‘Dracula’
My only real quibbles are with the effusive blurb, which claims this book is in ‘the spirit of Sherlock Holmes’ (it is not) and claims Stephen Gallagher as ‘the finest British writer of popular fiction since le Carre’. This is rather over-egging the pudding, in my opinion. Kingdom of Bones is not a masterpiece – it doesn’t need to be. It is what it is, a highly enjoyable, page-turny bit of foggy, gas-lit, steam powered nonsense, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Highly recommended.