Disraeli is Prime Minister, and we have beautiful little dialogues between him and Queen Victoria, who refuses to believe that her “Dizzy” might be defeated in the forthcoming election. Disraeli himself is not so sanguine, and he is right. The mood of the country is one for change, and Gladstone, on a whirlwind tour of the country whipping up support for himself, is now in Edinburgh.
Inspector James McLevy is unimpressed by the electoral frenzy. And when a prostitute of his acquaintance is murdered with an axe, her whole torso split open from head to waist, he loses what little interest he did have in the speechifying; for this brings back memories of a series of exactly similar murders that took place thirty years earlier, when McLevy was still new on the force, and his middle-aged partner and mentor, dying of a stab wound, made him promise that one day he would find the axe-murderer and bring him to book. Now it seems he has the opportunity, if, as he suspects, it is that same killer striking again.
Then a mysterious and attractive young woman comes to his assistance. Who is she?
McLevy soon finds himself up against some of the highest in the land – then, suddenly, he is taken off the case. Read on – you’ll love it. Especially the way the author seems not only to be able to move effortlessly from palaces to slums and back again, but the way he creates the dismal atmosphere of Edinburgh at the end of a long, cold, grey winter that pervades the book, then breaks it up, not so much with the glimpses of Victoria and Disraeli in the sunshine on the Isle of Wight, far, far to the south, but by such pieces of pure poetry as: The inspector was still a little shaky; what he wouldn’t give for an aromatic cup of Arabian best in Jean Brash’s garden, the early roses matching her red hair, listening to the fluting calls of the whores as they hung out the morning-washed bed linen.
I actually read Shadow of the Serpent a while ago and have just read another in the series, Fall From Grace, in which the God-like Sir Thomas Bouch, designer of, among other things, the Tay Bridge, turns out to be not so God-like – and his wife, Margaret, turns out to be not so lady-like. And again, Jean Brash, mistress of Edinburgh’s most celebrated “whoor-hoose”, and her girls, play a large and entertaining part in the story!