Dead Man Riding – Gillian Linscott (2002)

It is 1900 and a group of Oxford friends, including our protagonist and
heroine Nell Bray, are full of idealism. They agree that old shibboleths
need sweeping away with a new broom of truth and honesty, particularly in
respect of the relationships between men and women. In this spirit 7 of them
set out on a mixed summer reading party, defying convention, to the Lake
District. They are headed for the home of one member of the party’s uncle.
But when they arrive they find that this uncle is a recluse, largely hated
by the local community for his pro-Boer views and even more for the fact
that he is held responsible for the death of a young man who disappeared
when the ‘Old Man’, as he is known, loosed off a shot gun to deter a mob who
were attempting to set his stables on fire. As the book proceeds Nell has to
confront death, sex, and the very ideals of truth and honesty with which the
book opened; the confrontations and discoveries she makes set the course of
her life in ways which she never expected.

Apart from its many intrinsic qualities there are several fascinating
aspects to Dead Man Riding. It is, of course, part of Linscott’s almost
incredibly good Nell Bray series, still for me the best historical mystery
series I have encountered. There were 11 books in this series written
between 1991 and 2003 but the publication order in no way corresponds to the chronological order. Thus Dead Man Riding is much the earliest book
chronologically but was 10th in the series. I have never sat down and worked out the exact relation between publication and chronology but I do know the last chronologically ( Absent Friends – a special high-point) which was set in 1919 was the 8th in order of publication (if anyone has ever completed this exercise I would love to hear about it). Dead Man Riding therefore represents in one way an explanation for Nell Bray fans of how Nell became Nell. It would of course be utterly fascinating to read the series in
chronological order! But the task Linscott has set herself is a hard one as
the voice of the book (which is first person as ever) is that of the older
Nell explaining both to us and to herself some of the key influences which
led to her becoming a radical suffragette and a determined seeker after
truth. Because the book is aimed at those who know Nell well Linscott was
taking on a real challenge – but she succeeds magnificently. We hear the
voice of the older Nell whom we know, but we also see the younger Nell – the
unformed Nell as it were, essential characteristics there – but there as
potential when the book opens.

The next fascinating and saddening aspect is of course the whole question of
Caro Peacock. After the final Nell Bray book in 2003 Linscott abandoned the
series (or her publishers told her to abandon it) and returned in 2008 as
Caro Peacock, author of the Liberty Lane series; I have written and reviewed both Peacock books for rte (see for instance on the first Death at Dawn). In fact this is the first time I have returned to Linscott since
reading the Peacocks. I wondered if perhaps I had mis-remembered; if
Linscott was not really as good as I recalled; if my disappointment with
Peacock (not that the books are bad in any way) was over-stated? The answer is I had not. There is a vast qualitative gulf between Nell Bray and Liberty Lane and this cannot be papered over. Dead Man Riding is written at a level of intellectual and emotional engagement which is far beyond the Peacock books. It manages to be both deeply moving and historically fascinating. It is about idealism – how it can be broken, reshape and survive.

This is not to say it is flawless – the central problem is that the plot
itself appears to me fairly easily guessable ; whether this is just because
this is a re-read I am not sure but do not think so. However of greater
interest is that I think Linscott/Peacock to some degree re-uses the central
plot device or trick of Dead Man Riding in Death at Dawn (I am not 100% on
this so open to correction from anyone who knows both books). If so I admit to finding it a highly desirable in-joke of the kind I like.

Dead Man Riding is a terrific book and part of a brilliant series. I
unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone, although you should decide if you
want to take the chronological approach or try and read the series in the
publication order first.

But nonetheless there were tears in my eyes as I finished it; in part this
was due to the effect which Linscott’s evocative and emotional ending is
intended to have, but in part at the fact that Nell Bray has gone from the
mystery scene. Well, as I remarked on rte, we have no-one to blame but
ourselves for not buying enough.

(June 2009)