WILLIAM Sutton's contribution to Crescent's expanding fiction list is a period comedy-crime novel set in high-Victorian London. Its protagonist is a rising Edinburgh detective-on-the-make, Campbell Lawless, who uses an underground gang of informants called the Worms (they literally navigate the sewers) under the tutelage of the hardbitten Inspector Wardlem.
All of this takes place in Campbell's first-person, in sentences of Dickensian ornateness (Dickens, indeed, is ingeniously brought into the story). The novel's prose and interweaving plots are built like wrought-iron Victorian follies, reflecting the often absurd intricacy of the industrial revolution it charts. This allows Sutton to fill the narrative with apparent clichs and yet maintain the comic voice of the mid-Victorian adventurer. Although at times it feels that more distance from the wide-eyed narrator might have allowed for more comment, Sutton's control of the prose is such that the jokes are genuinely funny. Besides which, the story is counter-weighted with contributions from diarists, journalists and anonymous note-writers, who are drafted in to stop the pace from flagging.
There are three areas in which the book scores. First, it's an enormously well researched account of what was going on from 1858-62, including the controversy over the building of the new London Underground ("folly we like to style progress" as Sutton's amusingly fickle Euston Evening Bugle terms it), Victoria's mourning, and Marx studying in the British Library.
Second, its portrayal of post-1848 political sects, from Irish nationalists to utopian anarchists, all of which have to be wormed through to get to a crime, which is built of the very stuff of the industrial revolution, beginning with a sabotaged clock. Sutton is clearly capable of this: the watchmaker Ganz, for example, throws the narrative into relief with his aside that "people think time is money and speed's of the essence".
Third, Sutton draws on a rich seam of Edinburgh-London diaspora; his hero's background which is mechanical, practical and inquisitive. The arch-villain, Berwick Skelton, has been named with an ironic nod to the town sacked repeatedly by the English, and the Scotophobe 16th-century poet.
This mix of social history and mid-Victorian Keystone Cops makes Sutton's debut novel highly original and engaging. He has joyfully thrown himself into the mood, avoiding the leaden naturalism that would have been a more obvious option.