Andrew Pepper – The Last Days of Newgate (2006)

I don’t usually comment on books which fall into the DNF (Did Not Finish) category, but this particular mystery offers me a chance to make a more general observation on my reading habits and approach. I reviewed the third in the Pyke series, Kill-Devil and Water (2008), at the beginning of this year for rte (see ) and found many positive things to say about not least the fact that it had a real, and very good, mystery plot. My one problem I summed up as follows…

>>So given all these, genuine and substantial, pluses what is it that prevents me from giving the book an unqualified alpha-rating? There is one simple answer to this. Pyke. The series’ central conceit is to take a noir anti-hero (and Pyke is very anti) and put him in 19th century London. Now the positive side of this is that Pyke’s anger and political outlook enable Pepper to have an effective voice for his historical observations. But the great weakness is that Pyke is not an especially interesting character and cannot take the psychological weight which is laid upon him. In fairness it may be that those who have his followed his career in the previous series books would be more involved with this aspect; there are a lot of references to back-stories. Beyond this it means there is an obligation for him to have frequent resort to derring-do and violence. The master-criminals are not really necessary to the book’s historical setting but form part of the anti-hero paradigm. All this makes KILL-DEVIL AND WATER a very male book. It is the limitation of the noir anti-hero genre and does not vanish when that genre is transported to the London of 1840.

The peculiar thing about the first book, which I am reviewing here, is that it has an enormous amount of back-story, which makes it read as though it is a series entry rather than an introduction; one can however put this down to ‘first-novel’ technical problems. However what made me give up on it (which obviously I was free to do as it was not an rte but an Erdington Crime Group selection) was precisely the issue of Pyke himself. I find him so unsympathetic as a character that I just simply did not want to go on reading about his exploits, no matter how good and interesting the historical background, the plot and the pacing were(and all of these, especially the former, were once again very good). In general the likeability or otherwise of a book’s protagonist, hero or heroine does not matter to me that much; there are few series characters to whom I am really attached. But in this case I find that my tolerance is stretched beyond its breaking-point. At the back of this is my feeling that it is all so unnecessary; the story and the setting are of sufficient interest in themselves without the need for these noir japes, violence and (adapting Sharon Wheeler’s wonderful term which I unashamedly steal) willy-waving. So at page 100 or so I simply decided that I had enough of these antics – which is a considerable shame given Pepper’s other qualities. But I find there are my limits to my tolerance for the kind of protagonist whom I take a genuine aversion to.