Book review: Date with the Executioner by Edward Marston
In the latest novel in the highly addictive Bow Street Rivals series, identical-twin detectives Peter and Paul Skillen are embroiled in a dangerous case of treachery, fraud and murder involving two ill-matched duellists sparring over a beautiful woman.
Set in London during the Regency period, Date with the Executioner marks the exciting third instalment in the newest historical crime series from prolific author Edward Marston (aka Keith Miles), who has been writing popular British historical fiction and mystery novels for more than thirty years.
In an interesting twist, this new adventure begins with Paul Skillen (the more engaging, vivacious and audacious of the twins) being arrested for taking part in an illegal duel at dawn. A weapons instructor in his spare time, Paul was acting as second to his friend and pupil, Mark Bowerman, an unattractive, middle-aged widower who has fallen in love with a striking young woman with ‘the face of elfin loveliness’ named Laetitia Somerville.
Bowerman’s opponent is the ‘arrogant dandy’ Stephen Hamer, a handsome and daring former soldier who served with the Royal Horse Guards and fought in the Peninsular War. Hamer has romantic designs on Miss Somerville and, in the opinion of both men, their dispute can ‘only be resolved by a death.’
The bitter rivalry between Bowerman and Hamer mirrors the hostility on display between the Skillen brothers and rival detective duo Micah Yeomans and Alfred Hale, an established professional outfit known as the Bow Street Runners. Although not quite as well-known as their fierce rivals, the Skillen brother are gradually becoming the preferred detective team in London because they are more intelligent, more resourceful, and, often, ‘more honest.’
The Bow Street Runners, ‘imbeciles’ as far as the Skillen brothers are concerned, are typically ‘paid to look the other way’ where duels are concerned. Not this time, however, and with good reason. Having received a handy tip-off from a mysterious informant, they show up in time to stop the duel and embarrass Paul by placing him in handcuffs and taking him into custody.
Their revenge for ‘years of humiliation at the hands of the Skillen brothers’ is short lived. Paul is swiftly bailed out of jail by his brother and, when Bowerman is later discovered dead, with ‘a dagger made of Toledo steel’ embedded in his back so that it pierced his heart, the Bow Street Runners find themselves outmanoeuvred by the Skillen brothers and continually one step behind, as both detective teams work to solve the crime.
As with previous books, several interesting subplots steadily take shape, one of which involves Paul’s narcissistic girlfriend, the famous stage actress Hannah Granville. After agreeing to take the lead role in a mediocre play called The Piccadilly Opera, she begins to regret her decision, fearing the play will prove a ‘theatrical catastrophe.’
Unable to extricate herself from it without risking financial penalty and severe damage to her career, yet unwilling to perform the ‘atrocious lines’ and ‘appalling ditties,’ she proceeds to make radical changes to the play without the consent of the author, whom she refers to as ‘a freakish monster germinated outside lawful creation.’
The proud, relatively unknown playwright, Abel Mundy, is naturally hurt and enraged by her demeaning attitude toward him and his ‘hapless play,’ and the pair trade delightfully vicious put-downs until the production looks certain to be cancelled.
The ‘metaphorical stones’ they hurl at each other culminate in Hannah being struck in the face by a real stone thrown at her through a window, adding to the drama and creating a curious side mystery about who exactly cast the stone.
Edward Marston is exceptionally good at building tension, fleshing out secondary characters and smoothly integrating his subplots into the main action. Characters like Abel, often discussed but largely offstage, seem more rounded, sympathetic and intriguing, and seemingly unrelated events invariably prove to be part of a larger plot.
Highly enjoyable, full of surprising twists, and with a strong cast of duplicitous characters, Date with the Executioner is another well-executed novel by a reliably masterful storyteller.
(Allison & Busby, hardback, £19.99)