Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders by Mick Finlay: Brimming with dark humour and fast-paced action - book review -

When four African visitors fall prey to a ruthless London showman, detective William Arrowood is determined to help them evade capture.

Thursday, 8th July 2021, 3:45 pm
Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders by Mick Finlay
Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders by Mick Finlay

When four African visitors fall prey to a ruthless London showman, detective William Arrowood is determined to help them evade capture.

But in the mean streets of the capital city in 1896, there are few places of real sanctuary to be found for these hounded travellers, and danger and death are only ever the turn of a corner – or a single heartbeat – away.

Hold your noses and stiffen the sinews as Glasgow-born Mick Finlay, the master of gritty, gruesome and gripping historical crime fiction, returns with the fourth hard-hitting book in his atmospheric Arrowood series which brings Victorian London to life in all its glorious, gothic, grimy tumult.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

William Arrowood might be a canny and compassionate city sleuth but for well-heeled London society, Sherlock Holmes is the only detective worth hiring. Move south of the murky River Thames and into the realm of the poor and downtrodden, and Arrowood could be the only man you can afford.

Led by his senses rather than his clues, the clever but shambling Arrowood is a self-taught psychologist who operates from his shabby rooms over a pudding shop in sleazy Southwark, and despises the ‘deductive’ Holmes, his wealthy clientele and his showy forensic approach to crime.

In Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders, winter is gripping the city and Arrowood’s domestic life is beset by chaos and tension – not least the return to their home of his wife Isabel with a baby boy, Leo, born to her now dead lover.

On a visit to a women’s refuge supported by Arrowood’s sister Ettie, he and his trusty assistant Norman Barnett – a man who knows what it is to have lived amidst despair and human degradation – meet a group of Africans from the Natal who fear for their lives.

The two men and two women are being hunted by Bruno Capaldi, a brutal family gang leader and showman, who is forcing them to perform in his ethnic exhibition in the London Aquarium and then plans to take them on a tour of the country as ‘Zulu exhibits.’

Arrowood and Barnett see them settled inside the walls of a Quaker Meeting House and agree to help the travellers avoid capture by the Capaldis. But when they arrive at the Meeting House the following day, they find a scene of devastation. One of the Africans and an elderly Quaker man have been murdered, and the others have fled into the night.

Soon the hunt for the killer leads Arrowood into the dark heart of the city… a shadowy world of freak shows, violence and betrayal, where the hunted and the persecuted have only the slimmest chance of survival.

These brilliant murder thrillers imagine a teeming, stinking corner of Holmes’ capital city in the last decade of the 19th century, a place where the poor are hungry and crime is rife, and the streets are very different to the ones inhabited by Conan Doyle’s famous investigator.

Finlay shows his readers the squalor and yet sheer vibrancy of the world of Arrowood and our narrator, his doughty, dependable sidekick Barnett, a former clerk who sprung from one of the city’s notorious courts – and their outings have become must-reading for historical mystery fans and those who relish such a powerful evocation of the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian London.

Here we are invited to share not just the disarray of Arrowood’s domestic arrangements but a twisting, turning murder plot which explores exploitation, racism, revenge, and the desperate condition of those forced to live on the perilous edges of society.

Using his vast research into 19th century life, crime, policing, and early theories of psychology, Finlay has created one of modern historical fiction’s most memorable detectives – flawed, fallible, fiercely intelligent and fearless – and through him, has rendered readers a fascinating new perspective on literary giant Sherlock Holmes.

Brimming with dark humour, fast-paced action, nuggets of real history, and a cast of eclectic characters, this is a top-class series that grows in stature with every new book.

(HQ, paperback, £8.99)