Friday, March 8, 2013
Dead Born by Joan Lock
When the bodies of a number of babies are found scattered around Islington, the volatile Detective Sergeant Best is sent undercover to lodge next door to a suspected baby farm. He shadows an alleged 'child dropper' onto a Thames pleasure steamer and finds himself caught up in Britain's worst civilian tragedy — the 1878 sinking of the Princess Alice — a ghastly experience which will haunt Best forever. His determination to avenge the death of a young pregnant girl he had befriended and save the life of another becomes a crusade. Meanwhile, his beloved Helen returns from Paris with the promise of a decision as to their future. Previously published by Robert Hale in 2002
Ernest Best is a young widower with a sentimental heart, which along with his dark Mediterranean good looks makes him an unusual character in East End London’s police force. Sent under cover in a boarding house to uncover a ‘baby farm’, he befriends a pregnant girl named Nella, who disappears suddenly from the house he is watching.
Best spots Martha, another girl who works there, leaving one day with a suitcase and goes in pursuit, convinced she is about to dispose of yet another dead baby.However, when he catches up with Martha aboard the Princess Alice steamboat, he instigates a conversation with her. Martha turns out to be innocent, relatively, but while they are discussing the goings on in the house next door, the Princess Alice collides with the Bywell Castle and sinks in minutes.
Best throws himself into not only trying to survive, but helps the rescue mission, among them a small boy named Joseph. he aftermath of the tragedy is chaos and Best’s lady friend, Helen, newly arrived from Paris, does her utmost to help him get over the trauma of over six hundred dead and locate little Joseph’s family, but he still has a case to solve.
Ms Lock’s in-depth knowledge of the less salubrious areas of Victorian London are masterful, but in some places this encumbers the actual story as she tends to hook into a particular aspect and then expands on it so much it becomes a distraction.
That is the most critical I can be about this novel, which is wonderfully written and so compelling I read it at one session. The characters are well drawn, memorable and very much of their time without being cliche. The tragedy of the Woolwich Ferry is detailed, and poignant without being mawkish. The author doesn’t baulk at describing the worse sides of life in East End London in the 1870's, including the casual incompetence of the Victorian police, something Best has to overcome as his moral compass points in the right direction.
This novel is a sequel to a previous Ernest Best story, 'Dead Image', and according to the author website it’s not the only one. It's not a long book, but I became fond of Ernest and his lovely relationship with the toddler Joseph. I will definitely read more books by this author.
Joan Lock is a retired policewoman who also has published an impressive list of non-fiction titles about crime in Victorian London which any author would find a valuable research source.
Click here for more about the Princess Alice Disaster:
Joan Lock's Website
Anita Davison is a Historical Fiction Author whose latest release, ‘Royalist Rebel’ a biographical novel set in 17th Century England, is being released by Claymore Press in early 2013 under the name Anita Seymour