Three years ago I described Mary Paulson-Ellis’s first novel, The Other Mrs Walker, as a neo-Victorian mystery with a plot as involved as anything by Wilkie Collins. Its successor is in the same vein, a novel set in the present day with its roots in the deep darkness of the past. There is one significant difference, however. The central figure in the first novel – the investigator – was a credible, if unlikable, character. Solomon Farthing, the “Heir Hunter,” seeking out the origins and connections of Thomas Methven, an old soldier who has died in an Edinburgh nursing-home, is likable but incredible. The author gets away with this discrepancy, if only just, partly because the plot itself is full of improbabilities. It demands a suspension of disbelief and is happily written with such an engaging verve that only severely critical readers will resist.
The nonagenarian Thomas Methven has died intestate, but possessed, apparently, of £50,000 in cash. Solomon’s task is to find an heir from whom he expects to be paid a slice of the estate as commission. This sets him on a quest. Who was Thomas Methven and where did he come from? One clue is an old pawn ticket, another a regimental a badge. The search leads Solomon from his own long-dead grandfather’s near-derelict pawn shop to the National Library, a local newspaper in the Borders, a school for abandoned or delinquent boys (where he had himself been a pupil or inmate) and then to London and the National Archives at Kew. All the way he is shadowed by a rival and better-connected heir hunter. All this is entertaining.
The story of Solomon’s quest is intercut with chapters set on the Western Front in the last weeks of the First World War. These are written in a different style, grimmer, more realistic, more sympathetic. At first the only connection seems to be that this outpost is commanded by Solomon’s grandfather, Godfrey. Though he is a captain and has a second-lieutenant to support him, he seems to command only a dozen men, a section rather than a platoon. One of them, however, is called Methven, and it will soon become apparent that all the members of the section share a dark secret and will have some part to play in the story which Solomon is trying to recover.
There is always a risk when a novelist harnesses two distinct narratives written in different registers, and not even the greatest of the Victorian masters of this sort of novel always managed to do this successfully. Even Dickens, for example, failed to do so in Our Mutual Friend. So it is not surprising that Paulson-Ellis can’t quite bring it off. Inasmuch as the war chapters ring coldly true, so the comic extravagance of Solomon’s quest rings false.
Nevertheless, while one may judge that the novel as a whole doesn’t work, never becoming a complete and credible thing, it is rich in individual delights. Its dark underside is persuasive and enjoyable, even if one may think that the picture of Edinburgh and the observation of the duality of Edinburgh society and the characters of its people are stereotypical and therefore stale. On the other hand in both the contemporary and wartime sections it is full of good things, and much of it is richly enjoyable. Paulson-Ellis writes with verve and vividness, also with sympathy.
As with The Other Mrs Walker, the novel is too long and would have benefitted from some editorial pruning. But publishers usually like long and densely-plotted novels and are probably right in assuming that readers do too.
In any case, with The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing one may say that Paulson-Ellis has successfully cleared the traditional second novel hurdle. She has a real talent for this sort of deep-delving and intricately plotted mystery. She probably won’t repeat the central weakness of this novel, which is that its central figure, Solomon, is a really a comic figure who doesn’t properly belong in a plot that is by its nature grim, not comic at all. Allan Massie
The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing, by By Mary Paulson-Ellis, Mantle, 501pp, £16.99