The Devil's Ribbon is D.E. Meredith's second book about her professor Hatton and his assistant Roumande. The professor is a forensic scientist, and the only such practitioner in London. The book is a murder mystery set in Victorian London during the summer of 1858, and the city is suffering from the hottest summer for a long time. Tempers are also growing hot in the Irish quarters, where the Irish are forced to live as second class citizens. Oh, and there are also murders. This is where Adolophous Hatton can come in handy for the police. Thank you D.E. Meredith for providing me with a review copy of The Devil's Ribbon.
Hatton and Roumande are in the morgue working on the latest batch of cholera victims. The two friends are methodically doing their work while talking about work, their new assistant, and their last case. The funding of the morgue is soon up for discussion and they are worried it will be cut. Theirs is not a fashionable profession, especially after the fiasco in court. Hatton is still upset about how the insufferable Inspector Jeremiah Gray expected him to testify to something he could not prove scientifically. The Inspector was furious, not understanding what the point of forensics is, if it didn't help him lock away criminals. With him an important source of income gone.
It's a big surprise to Hatton when Inspector Gray turns up the day after to ask for his help to settle a bet. With him he brought a deceased man, whose face was frozen into a mask of horror. The dead man had been submitted as a suspected cholera victim, and the Inspector wants to know if Hatton agrees. Not only can Hatton quickly determine the cause of death is not cholera, but also the identity of the dead man. The man on the slab is Gabriel McCarthy MP, an Irish Unionist. His death, and especially murder, could prove to be a delicate matter in these turbulent times with the Irish already close to the edge.
D.E. Meredith has done really well with her research on Victorian London. She does a good job of describing London at the time. The stage for her story is both filthy, grim and desperation is thick in the air. It all feels very genuine, and it's easy to imagine what's happening as you read. The actual science is also very interesting. At the time a forensics expert was already quite capable, and certainly able to provide assistance to the police. It's all quite CSI like when Hatton and Roumande are examining a crime scene, but without the snarky comments. Fingerprinting is unfortunately experimental and not good enough to be used as proof, but they can still look at fibers, test for poison, and of course determine the cause of death.
Hatton seems rather aloof and trapped in the past. He is still not over the death of his father, and haunted by the brutal murder of his childhood sweetheart. The widow of the murdered MP is the spitting image of his childhood sweetheart, and this does not help him focus. Roumande is the cool headed one, and also seems to do most of the work. I never quite managed to develop much of a connection to either Hatton or Roumande. Roumande was very much in the background, only to appear when a breakthrough was made or he needed to give Hatton some fatherly advice. Inspector Jeremiah Gray certainly made more of an impression, but a terrible one. He just wants quick results and will go to any means necessary to procure them, even beating a suspect.
Apart from Hatton the book also follows some of the Irish who are plotting acts of terrorism. There is quite a lot going on, and what first appeared to be a simple plots quickly grows in complexity. I did feel that our two eccentric protagonist struggled to move the plot forward on their own at times. The middle of the book feels a little bit slow, D.E. Meredith has a lot of facts and history to feed us, and it did slow things down. Having said that, I did miss my bus stop so I could finish the last couple of chapters just. If you have a thing for historical crime fiction and Victorian London I think The Devil’s Ribbon could be for you.
The Devil's Ribbon weighs in at 304 pages and is published by Minotaur Books.