The Worms of Euston Square
By William Sutton
Mercat Books, 363pp, 9.99
VICTORIAN CRIME FICTION is in fashion, and William Sutton's first novel is a fine, extravagant and thoroughly enjoyable example of the genre. It is an exuberant tale that offers no more than a nod to probability, and in this it somewhat resembles Boris Akunin's Fandrin novels. These have been international bestsellers, and there is no good reason why Sutton's Worms of Euston Square shouldn't also do very well.
Campbell Lawless is a young Scottish policeman, son of an Edinburgh watchmaker. He has just joined the Met when the novel opens in 1859. Naive but dogged, he gets his break when a hydraulic crane apparently goes crazy at Euston Station, which is still under construction. He is led to the scene by a London street urchin known as Worm, the resourceful leader of a gang of waifs and strays who owe something to Conan Doyle's "Baker Street Irregulars" and perhaps even more to the "Gorbals DieHards" of John Buchan. One of the joys of the novel is the language employed by Worm and his friends, part authentic Victorian slang, part thieves' cant, and part - I rather think - invented.
The plot is of a suitable complexity, impossible to summarise. It's perhaps enough to say that it concerns revolutionary attempts to harness the forces of the new industrialism to spread terror and dismay throughout London. The new Metropolitan trains diving underground are central to the action, which itself moves with dizzying speed from the highest quarters in the land, with one scene set in Buckingham Palace, to the vilest slums and low dives of the teeming city.
The Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), Karl Marx and Charles Dickens all make appearances. So also, at a cricket match at Lord's, does Dr EM Grace (WG's brother), even though it's improbable that, in 1861, at the tender age of 20, he was already a "bearded medic". But what does probability matter when the fun is fast and furious? A tale of this sort requires fine villains, and Sutton obliges us with a couple.
The first is an enthusiast for hydraulic engineering, a company promoter and well-born crook. The second, who out-Moriarties Conan Doyle's infamous professor, is Berwick Skelton, murderous idealist, man of mystery and many faces. Lawless, our dogged hero, comes to have an uneasy respect, even admiration, for this deeply flawed idealist.
Transferred to Scotland Yard, Lawless finds his own hero there in one Inspector Wardle, the most famous policeman in London; but has Wardle in reality got feet of clay? Has he perhaps been corrupted, as policemen may be corrupted, by too long an association with the underworld, and also, perhaps, by a developing cynicism? These are alarming questions for poor Lawless to ponder. In whom can he fully place his trust?
Fortunately, he is not alone. On a visit to the reading room of the British Museum (where he is able to observe Marx) he meets a gifted librarian, Ruth Villiers, who soon catches what Wilkie Collins termed "the detective fever" and proves an invaluable assistant. Meanwhile there are also the inventive and elusive "Worms of Euston Square" themselves, one of the chief delights of the novel. But are they just what they seem - in one case, certainly not - and is their leader, the audacious Worm, playing a double game?
As Holmes used to say to Watson, "these are deep waters".
Meanwhile the plot rattles along at a fine pace, and, if you don't follow all its twists and turns, I doubt if it matters. For this is a world enveloped in smoke and fog, where confusion reigns. Despite this, it is indeed, as becomes apparent, well-constructed, a cunning contrivance. What, after all, as Scott said, is the plot for, but to bring in fine things? And there are fine things here in abundance.
We are told that William Sutton is now at work on another Campbell Lawless mystery. If he can maintain this standard of invention, this mastery of linguistic tone, he is on to a winner. Meanwhile one has the impression that this first novel was as enjoyable to write as it unquestionably is to read.