Wednesday 26 July 2017

Grim sect and a murdered baby in 19th-century Dublin

Gripping: The Coroner's Daughter is Andrew Hughes's second novel
Gripping: The Coroner's Daughter is Andrew Hughes's second novel
The Coroner's Daughter by Andrew Hughes
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Summer 1816, and it feels like the end of days are coming to Dublin. For one thing, summer doesn't feel like summer: it's cold, foggy, even snowy, the apparent consequence of a Pacific Ocean volcano eruption.

This unsettlingly bizarre weather is compounded by the arrival of The Brethren, a grim fire-and-brimstone sect who are sweeping up new members under the charismatic leadership of their preacher Darby.

Then a young maid is arrested for murdering her newborn baby, a sin against God and nature. The city, and the world, seem to be going to hell in a handbasket.

The apocalyptic ambience of Andrew Hughes's second historical crime novel is tempered, though, by some common sense and rationality. Our heroine, Abigail Lawless, is 18, spirited, intelligent and courageous.

So, too, is her father, who is city coroner - in those days, that appears to have been a mixture of medical examiner and investigating judge.

Hughes sets up an intriguing 'clash of cultures' in this book: the lingering superstition and ignorance of a quasi-Medieval mindset, and the incremental effect of Enlightenment science and reason on western society. One character bemoans how the rest of the Europe is moving forward, while Dublin is in danger of remaining mired in the past. The story follows Lawless père's investigation into the baby's death, and the maid's subsequent suicide, and Abigail's own sleuthing, when she's dissatisfied with the official record of events.

I would say "amateur sleuthing", but this girl is hardly an amateur: she's acquainted with the burgeoning science of forensics, has a sharp and inquisitive mind, and generally puts the right questions to the right people.

She's a great character, plausible and well-drawn, in a novel full of them. Hughes is an archivist by trade, and it shows in the depth of his knowledge of 19th-century Dublin.

But he wears this learning lightly, avoiding the fate of much historical fiction which lades on the research so heavily that it drags the story to a slow dullness. The Coroner's Daughter briskly and efficiently sets its scene, then concentrates on telling a rattling good story. As Abigail delves deeper, further mysteries reveal themselves. Who left the love-note to the late maid? What's the connection between The Brethren and those two deaths? Are certain powerful members of Dublin high society trying to have the truth suppressed? Who is the menacing man with the half-closed eye?

The Coroner's Daughter climaxes in a series of clever twists, one especially putting a whole new spin on what's gone before.

The world of this book may be a battleground between good and evil, but evil doesn't always wear an obvious face. An enjoyable and thought-provoking novel.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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