This is the seventh outing for Inspector Best a kind-hearted and dedicated detective in Victorian England. When Dead Centre opens it is 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee but also a year of unrest with unemployment in England high when the only options for destitute people was the dreaded workhouse.
In Trafalgar Square the masses congregated, in the daytime for political speeches, at night to sleep sheltered by the walls and the fountain they bedded down for what must have been an uncomfortable rest. When one man finds his place taken by a dead body, Inspector Best is called to investigate the suspicious event. Taking his young protégé Albert with him they identify potential suspects, was it to do with the fact that the dead man had been a rising star in the Social Democratic Federation but has recently resigned or could it be connected to his job at the dockyards where he was a ‘caller-on’, a man who decided which men had work that day, and who didn’t. The latter role caused Albert to don a disguise and join the desperate men.
Parallel to this storyline is that of Albert’s fiancée, Florence a member of the Salvation Army who had witnessed a crime (in an earlier book) but the perpetrator Stark had disappeared but Best is sure he has seen him among the masses in Trafalgar Square. Protecting Florence is nigh on impossible though with her route of visits taking her to some of the worst alleys and hovels in London, rescuing the poor by introducing faith into the lives. Albert can’t do it, even when he is not working undercover at the dockyards he is on his feet for twelve hours plus a day, he barely gets to see Florence let alone keep her safe.
This is a very interesting book, clearly incredibly well-researched and although there is a mystery, the solving of it comes via public marches, gypsies, working-conditions, the Salvation Army and politics and to be honest after the convoluted journey I didn’t really care. That said if I really wanted to know more about this period of history, I’m not entirely sure that I would choose this genre to do so as fascinating as it has been. The book did develop some pace before the end in a fantastic description of that year’s Bloody Sunday when the dissatisfied mounted marches to diverge on Trafalgar Square on 13 November 1887 and young Albert, probably my favourite character is ordered to repel the protesters as part of the establishment’s determination to uphold a bill that forbade gatherings in Trafalgar Square. By this stage the author had lost the somewhat irritating habit (or poor editing) that meant that some of her points were reiterated in subsequent chapters and I was easily able to picture the melee that ensued.
In conclusion this is a fascinating read but far more so for the historical elements than the mystery which I felt would have been lifted out of the research with more in-depth characterisation as the protagonists were just a little too worthy and provided little contrast although maybe if I’d read the previous books in the series, which are referenced in this one, these wouldn’t have fallen a little flat. I will probably pick up this series from the beginning for the well-researched insights into Victorian life as a contrast to the more bloody investigations in modern crime novels.
I did get approved for a copy of this book by Endeavor Press but sadly the title quickly got archived before I had a chance to download it so I bought my own copy.