Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Barker & Llewelyn #1
Published by Touchstone on May 18, 2004
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org, Better World Books
An atmospheric debut novel set on the gritty streets of Victorian London, Some Danger Involved introduces detective Cyrus Barker and his apprentice, Thomas Llewelyn, as they work to solve the gruesome murder of a young scholar.
When a student bearing a striking resemblance to artists' renderings of Jesus Christ is found murdered -- by crucifixion -- in London's Jewish ghetto, 19th-century private detective Barker must hire an assistant to help him solve the sinister case. Out of all who answer an ad for a position with "some danger involved," the eccentric and enigmatic Barker chooses downtrodden Llewelyn, a gutsy young man whose murky past includes recent stints at both an Oxford college and an Oxford prison. As Llewelyn learns the ropes of his position, he is drawn deeper and deeper into Barker's peculiar world of vigilante detective work, as well as the dark heart of London's teeming underworld. Together they pass through chophouses, stables, and clandestine tea rooms, tangling with the early Italian mafia, a mad professor of eugenics, and other shadowy figures, inching ever closer to the shocking truth behind the murder.
Fair warning, this review is going to be LONG, even for me. I really, truly, seriously LOVED this book – even more than I expected. And I had pretty high hopes going in.
We first meet our protagonists in a tried-and-true manner that does an excellent job of hinting at the mysteries and the reveals yet to come.
Cyrus Barker is a ‘private enquiry agent’ (read as private detective), in search of a new assistant, while down-so-low-bottom-looks-like-up Thomas Llewelyn, formerly of both Oxford University and Oxford Castle & Prison, has nothing left either to life for or to live on. He sees Barker’s advertisement as a decision point. Either he’ll get the job or he’ll throw himself in the Thames.
Of course, he gets the job – otherwise we wouldn’t have this marvelous book to read, let alone the series that follows.
But the job that he gets is nothing like he expected. On the one hand, his new employer likes to hold all his cards VERY close to his vest. Llewelyn is constantly flying blind, expected to figure things out by the seat of his pants.
Pants – along with every other stitch of clothing he has on – purchased for him by his employer, who is also providing food, board, education, and all the books the former scholar can read in his spare time – of which there is admittedly little.
Most important, Barker gives him purpose, keeps his mind fully engaged, and sets him to the task of learning the ins and outs of his new job while thinking on his feet and occasionally employing his fists.
But the ‘Help Wanted’ listing said that there was ‘some danger involved’ in the job, as the title of the book indicates. Barker’s previous assistant was killed while performing that job. Llewelyn will have to keep his wits about him every second to make sure that he doesn’t suffer the same fate.
Working with Cyrus Barker promises to be the making of him, IF he manages to survive it. We’ll certainly see how well he manages in the books ahead!
Escape Rating A+: I generally require my comfort reads to have a bit of body to hold my interest. I mean that literally, as my comfort reads tend to be historical mysteries, preferably in series, so that when I have a ‘bail and flail’ day – or week – there’s always another known quantity of a book to sweep me into its world.
Buuuut, I’m caught up with one series I was using as comfort reading, the Sebastian St. Cyr series. And I’m nearly caught up with its readalike series, Wrexford & Sloane. Which left me scrabbling for another, which is very much where Barker & Llewelyn came in.
This first entry in the Barker & Llewelyn series turned out to be a comfort read on not just one but multiple levels, which is pretty amazing.
Most importantly, the partnership of Barker & Llewelyn is at its very beginning in this book, and they are fascinating – partly because of the second reason. The period in which this series takes place is the Victorian era, the bailiwick of the Great Detective and his equally famous amanuensis. In other words, Barker & Llewelyn could easily find themselves in competition with Sherlock Holmes – even more than they already are.
It’s not difficult to see Barker as Holmes and Llewelyn as his Watson, but that famous duo serves mostly as a jumping off point for our protagonists in this series. This isn’t a true Holmes pastiche as the Lady Sherlock or The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes series, or the TV series Sherlock and Elementary, are.
Not that Barker doesn’t have similarities to Holmes, but more in the sense that any capable senior partner in a detective duo shares at least some characteristics with the Great Detective. What sets Barker apart is the way that Barker is, well, set apart.
Detectives are often outsiders in their own cultures, it’s what gives them the ability to observe in detachment and solve the case. Sherlock Holmes is an outsider because of his idiosyncrasies, as is made extremely apparent in the modern interpretations. However, from what little we know of Holmes’ earlier life, he’s at least a member of the squirearchy and was raised in at least upper middle class comfort with all of its privileges.
Barker has been an outsider all of his life, an English orphan abandoned in China, making his way around the globe from a rough start as a cabin boy, initially seeing the world from outside the British Empire and from the bottom up. He’s earned his place by working his way into it.
He’s also a considerably more human character than Holmes frequently is. Barker often hides the real depths of his humanity to outsiders, but it is always present to his intimates. It’s a much fuller portrait of a Victorian detective, and also one that, through Barker’s haphazard but global education, manages to credibly eschew the common prejudices of his day that Holmes exhibits in the original text.
Llewelyn is just as fascinating a character as Barker, and just as much of an outsider, although he comes at that perspective from an entirely different direction. He’s very much the apprentice in this first book, and so it should be. We’re just starting to get hints of how he ended up in depths of the slough of despond he is in when he arrives as Barker’s office for the first time, and his education in the arts of the ‘enquiry agent’ as Barker prefers to be called provide an in-depth introduction to their world.
On a personal note, part of what made this such a special comfort read for this reader is that the story takes place among the Jewish community of London in 1884 as a gruesome murder causes the leaders of that community to fear that a pogrom just like the ones that they or their families fled in Eastern Europe is about to boil over in London.
Much of the story is steeped in that community, and requires Barker to display his own familiarity with its customs and ways AND his respect for its people to Llewelyn. Even more importantly, the inside/outsiderness of the Jewish community in London, and Llewelyn’s open-mindedness to learning about it lets readers into a time and a place that history often sweeps under the carpet.
(Although my own family was still spread across Eastern Europe at this time period, I have pictures of my great-grandfather, and this would have been his generation, letting me connect to this story on a deeper level than I expected – which is where those multiple levels of comfort read come comfortably in.)
So I began Some Danger Involved in the hopes that the danger promised would lead me to a book and a series that would hold me in its thrall until the very last page, and give me something to look forward to whenever I next need a reading pick-me-up.
This first of Barker & Llewelyn’s investigations more than delivered, and I expect to dive back into their world in the next book in the series, To Kingdom Come, sometime over the holidays. If I can make myself wait even that long!