59) Christopher Wakling — The Devil’s Mask
Note – I received a free review copy through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.
Historical mystery set in Bristol just after the abolition of the slave trade. Inigo Bright comes from a wealthy mercantile family, but has gone into law rather than shipping. Newly qualified, he still works for the man he was legal clerk to, on one of the practice’s major sources of income — the nitpicking investigation on behalf of the port officials of customs fees owed and paid. What seems like a routine investigation of one ship’s petty smuggling gives Inigo a minor problem with torn loyalties, because his family’s business has some investment in the ship.
He sets that aside and goes on with his investigation, only to be led into a tangle of deception, threats and finally outright violence against himself and his master. And it seems to be linked with the murdered women who have been found in the city. Inigo does the sensible thing and tries to put his information before the authorities, but finds a suspicious lack of interest. If the truth is to be brought to light, he’ll have to do the digging.
I enjoyed it enormously, but more as a historical novel with a literary bent than as a mystery. The mystery’s good, but the book’s structure gives away a lot of the solution just a little too soon for my taste if approaching it purely as a mystery. The reverse side of this is that Wakling has done an excellent job of laying out the clues and leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions about not just the solution to the mystery, but the society Inigo lives in. I’m partial to world-building via long, lingering descriptions when done well, as it is here, and found the book to have a good balance between plot and evoking a sense of place. The one criticism I’d have was that several characters seemed to start off as being intended to be significant players in the tale, and then more or less fizzled out. Inigo himself is an appealing character. He’s young and uncertain of himself, but has the strength of character to make difficult choices once he’s thought them through. At book’s end I was satisfied with the closure given, but wanted to know what happened to him next, which is always a good sign.
A page-turner that brings to life the physical and moral price paid for the profits of the slave trade, even after abolition.