Review: Sabrina’s Teardrop by Leslie Scase
At some point, a sharper brain than mine will write a convincing explanation of why so many modern authors choose to set their books in the past but there can be no doubt that it is certainly a phenomenon.
It cannot be a co-incidence that Hilary Mantel, rightly mourned as a colossus of modern fiction, set many of her books in the past and I think it could safely be said that she singlehandedly rescued books set in the past from the clammy taint of Cartlandism.
As with literary fiction, so with detective stories: some of the best crime writing of recent years has been set in the past.
There is an understandable tendency for single hist-tecs to spawn a series: if I had been obliged to learn all there is to know about the types of document ribbon used in 17th magistrates’ courts, I would make damn sure I put that research to good use.
I have feasted greedily on several of these series, such as Shardlake and the under-rated Seeker novels and therefore I was delighted to come across Leslie Scase’s Inspector Chard series, set in Victorian times.
Violent and seamy
I jumped in at the third of the Thomas Chard novels and found that Scase’s light but helpful references to his Inspector’s previous adventures put me at no disadvantage.
‘Sabrina’s Teardrop’ sees Chard relocated from Pontypridd to Shrewsbury and the setting added considerably to the enjoyment of the story for me.
Indeed, I definitely prefer the at times violent and seamy town depicted in this story to the current condition of the place, besieged as it is by the trophy wives of estate agents picking children up from prep schools in their four by fours: give me a gangster any day.
Scace uses the variety of settings around the town well, though I did feel we were perhaps lured out on one too many nocturnal visits to sites of historical interest.
Chard himself is a strong and appealing detective, kind to animals and not at all averse to a bit of a punch-up when necessary. The frequent fights in this book were well-staged and retained their jeopardy, by the way.
However, in common with rather too many of the characters in ‘Sabrina’s Teardrop,’ he didn’t seem particularly Victorian, as when he exchanged Christian names with a new friend. This is a common problem in historical fiction, the modern sensibilities and attitudes of the hero can become rather jarring.
The usual method for avoiding this difficulty is to describe the hero as a man wise and empathic beyond his epoch but rather too many of Chard’s friends seem to share his anachronistic world view.
The morality of the time was widely shared, strange as it may seem to us, and I rather gained the impression that a sizeable chunk of the population of Victorian Shrewsbury held opinions which would have been regarded as ‘advanced’ in the 1930s, let alone the 1890s.
The reader can enjoy a delicious panorama of wickedness, implicating all social classes and the plot is well put together with a fast but not disorienting pace.
Set pieces in the prison and at a football match were particularly vivid and Chard’s accidental acquisition of a canine sidekick added to the fun.
The proximity of small town to big crime, manifested today in county lines opened up the story but I feel the use of the term ‘peaky blinders’ felt a little stale. I know the TV series is based on historical fact but Victorian Birmingham bristled with gangs, like the Birmingham Boys and the Whitehouse Street Gang.
My own favourite 19th Century Midland subculture would be the Nail Women of Cradely Heath. By using the term ‘peaky blinders,’ Scase is casting an unjustified shadow on his originality.
All self-respecting Victorian crime dramas have at least one plot based on white slavery and Scase does not sell us short in that department.
My tired old feminist hackles did bristle, however, when a very attractive young ‘street girl’ lamented her return to respectability because she missed her customers.
I, in common with at least 51% of the human race, do not buy the idea that prostitution is an ideal career for a frisky young lady and that her Johns will be a series of lusty swains: the one thing all people who pay for sex have in common is that they cannot secure any freely given favours.
This ‘Belle de Jour’ fantasy also rather undermined the character: if she liked abusive sex with unattractive men, why did she need to be rescued?
These points are minor, though and ‘Sabrina’s Teardrop’ is a book which well justifies a description as a good read, with more twists than the river Severn and I will be going back to learn more about the previous exploits of Inspector Chard as I await his next adventure.
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