The Butchered Man is a nice start to Harriet Smart’s Victorian era detective series, The Northminster Mysteries. Set in the mid-1800s, the story focuses on the main characters of Major Giles Vernon and Dr. Felix Carswell as they sort out the events leading up to the murder of the initially unidentified man they nicknamed “Harlequin”.
Harlequin’s body was found at a local building site, dumped after a vicious murder and mutilation. Once they identify him, they are inexorably drawn into the web of deception that led to his death.
When I read anything set in an historic period, my first concern is that it has a sense of realism – do the culture, setting, and description feel accurate? Is the language or behavior of the characters anachronistic? Everything in The Butchered Man is bang on. While she does not adopt a Victorian writing style (do you really want to labor through Dickensian exposition?), the author builds an accurate picture of the times.
Dirty little secrets abound in The Butchered Man. The investigation reveals the tale of a man who was not who he appeared to be and ended badly because of it; however, the victim is not the only one with secrets. In some nice plot twists, the true but hidden nature of many of the characters is revealed. We even find our indefatigable heroes concealing personal secrets that impact the events as they unfold.
Each of our detectives can be quite naive when it comes to matters romantic or sexual. This tends to lead them into awkward and even dangerous situations. Felix is a young man who finds himself in Northminster to escape the repercussions of an awkward broken engagement; I can forgive his indiscretions more readily than I can forgive Major Vernon. Vernon, who is older and ought to know better, seems to me to be the worst offender in this area. I found myself being annoyed with him while at the same time feeling sorry for him. Circumstances in his marriage have conspired to make him a very lonely man.
The novel included many strong women characters, but they were strong in ways that were appropriate to Victorian times. The author doesn’t allow the women to settle into the background to do their needlework, but she also doesn’t write modern characters thinly disguised in Victorian garb. This takes a particular skill that the author appears to have in spades. I would keep reading Ms. Smart’s novels for this talent alone.
I enjoyed this book a great deal, but it was not as good as the second book in the series. There were a couple of plot elements that came across as (unrealistic? lazy? just plain too “talky”?) to me. Ms. Smart has some serious writing chops, so it is possible I had elevated expectations for her first mystery novel.
The particulars that make this book the weaker of the two current books in the series are as follows: twice in the course of the story I felt that the answers being sought should have been revealed through the detective’s powers of detection rather than through the sudden decision of a character to reveal what he or she had been withholding. I wanted to be shown not told, and I think that the author missed a couple of readily available ways in which she could have done this. However, those moments quickly passed, and I was soon reabsorbed in the tale. Overall, the book is a fine first mystery novel despite a few elements where small improvements would have built a better story.
As a card-carrying member of the Grammar Police, I have nothing of note to report regarding spelling or grammar issues. This book is as pristine a reading experience as a Grammar Cop could want. Although Ms. Smart currently self-publishes, she is previously traditionally published, and it is clear that she continues to uphold professional standards of publication.
Do I recommend The Butchered Man? Heck, yeah! It’s a nicely written, well researched, and entertaining mystery wrapped up in a big dollop of Victoriana. You would be silly not to read it if you are in the mood for a Victorian mystery — and then you can read The Dead Songbird, the second book of the series, which you will like even better. At the list price of $5, I think the books are a definite buy.