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It's London in the early 1860's. Time of Queen Victoria, Gladstone and Disraeli, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It's the height of Victorian Britain, more than 10 years after the (mainly continental) upheavals of 1848's Spring of Nations and the 1851's Great Exhibition which had paved more ways for the Empire to grow in strength.
It's the time of triumphant engineering, post Brunel and with Bazalgette consolidating London's sewer network to take the waste away from the river; the first underground trains are rumbling in their tunnels. Civically minded reformers go hand in hand with speculators at making London the greatest city in the world. But cholera and typhoid are still claiming numerous victims and despite the beginnings of curbs on the worst excesses of the industrial capitalism, there is still untold deprivation and squalor, with whole families living in horrible hovels and burst sewers resulting in death of dwellers of foul cellars. Karl Marx is studying in the British Museum Library and those wanting to improve the lot of the majority have to choose between reformist and revolutionary paths.
Campbell Lawless is a son of a Scottish clockmaker, newly recruited to the police and co-opted by the gruff and cynical but seemingly efficient Inspector Wardle of the Scotland Yard. A chain of events that starts with a stolen clock mechanism and a broken hydraulic crane spouting water spectacularly in front of a not-yet-open Euston Station will take Campbell from the music halls of Hoxton and taverns of Clerkenwell all the way to the Windsor Castle. He's trying to find a mysterious activist Berwick Skelton who might be seeking retribution from the high and mighty for the general social injustice (and having his actress fiancée stolen by one of the philandering gentlemen).
The plot of "The Worms of Euston Square" is diverting enough while doesn't exactly make the book impossible to put down. It picks up considerably in the later parts of the book, too. Campbell is a somewhat bland and a rather transparent character, but this transparency makes him a good mirror in which to see the setting and is balanced by more full-blooded figures of Inspector Wardle and Campblell's emancipated librarian sidekick Ruth Villiers.
Both Campbell and Ruth are quite anachronistic in their attitudes and behaviours relating to opposite sex (much more modern and free than they would almost certainly be in reality of 1860's). But this rather adds to enjoyment of the book as psychological realism it's not its main point, and it might make it more palatable to a modern reader. In fact, both the plots and the characters are just a good pretext giving the occasion to trample the salons, streets and sewers of London, visit theatres and pubs, homes of the great and the good (including very funny vignettes of Marx's and Dickens' households), slums and royal palaces.
There is a lot of modern allusions and anachronistic nods to the reader, in fact "The Worms of Euston Square" is almost a pastiche, novel as they don't get written nowadays, bit Dickensian really, alternately grave and humorous, sentimental and bathetic. Despite many serious reflections, few mangled bodies thrown in and a denouement verging on apocalyptic, the book maintains a light tone overall. The plot's engine of a terrorist threat seems very serious, but the light tone is helped by the fact that this threat's perpetrator seems motivated by a romantic disappointment and to the end we don't know how bad (or mad?) her really is. There is, of course, the question of reputations of the high and mighty, and the characters take it all rather seriously (as they would) but we don't have to, most of the time. There are subjects raised that should be taken seriously, though; including the possibility of social justice and the role of police in society (defenders of the people or a corrupt strong arm of establishment?).
It's a well written and constructed book which ambles along for a few years of the storyline without becoming boring. Unusually for a debut, there don't seem to be any surplus subplots or sections that would be better edited out. I have not noticed any grating phrases or sentences nor overtly florid or kitschy descriptions, neither for scenes nor emotions. The stylistic and psychological anachronisms seem all purposeful and work well, while sections purporting to be the copies of actual writing of the time maintain the Victorian flavour. The research seems impressive in scale and impeccable in accuracy to me, though I am not a historian, but there is no obvious blunders noticeable.
I read "The Worms of Euston Square" over a long period in many 15 minutes stretches and it's not the best way to read this book. It needs few evenings of at least an hour or two for the reader to immerse themselves in its world. Despite this I enjoyed "The Worms of Euston Square" and I think many readers would too. William Sutton has created a complicated plot and a likeable if a bit bland character whom I can easily seen engaged in other investigations (hopefully still with the help of Ruth). Where the book really shines is in its excellent evocation of Victorian London: a living, breathing, stinking beast of a city that is both terrible and awe inspiring.
As a crime mystery "The Worms of Euston Square" score an average three stars, but as a gently tongue in cheek Victorian romp and a magnificent picture of 1860's imperial capital - four. Recommended for an enjoyable, well written and researched, atmospheric journey 150 years back in time, though don't expect fast moving plot or major suspense.
PS. To find out what (or who) The Worms actually are, you need to read the book!
Paperback: 362 pages
£9.99 on Amazon or £6.77 from the Marketplace
This review was originally published on www.thebookbag.co.uk