From award-winning author John MacLachlan Gray comes a mesmerizing novel of corruption and murder through the looking-glass of Victorian London.
Edmund Whitty writes lurid articles for the London press. He’s investigating a quack psychic who has been murdered after revealing a scandal involving Whitty’s late brother. Whitty’s search for the truth takes him back to Oxford, where a brilliant and eccentric cleric who delights in playing croquet, telling children’s stories and taking little girls’ pictures, may or may not be involved with a murderous ring of child pornographers. Gray, who evoked “the mean streets and byways of 1852 London with a skill worthy of Dickens” (Publishers Weekly) in The Fiend in Human, spins an even more irresistible tale of the dark secrets behind the facades of Victorian respectability.
From the Hardcover edition.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
John MacLachlan Gray is a writer-composer-performer for the stage, film, television, radio and print. He is best known for his stage musicals, including the phenomenally successful Billy Bishop Goes to War, and for his satirical videos on CBC-TV’s The Journal. Gray is the recipient of many awards — a Golden Globe, the Governor General’s Medal and most recently the Order of Canada. He currently writes a weekly column entitled “Gray’s Anatomy” for the Globe and Mail. He lives in Vancouver with his personal demons.
From the Hardcover edition.
Crouch Manor, Chester Wolds, Oxfordshire, 1858
Ye golden hours of Life’s young spring,
Of innocence, of love and truth!
Bright, beyond all imagining,
Thou fairy-dream of youth!
‘Very well, ladies, shall we begin?’
‘Please, let’s do,’ says the smaller girl, pushing strands of wayward hair from her eyes with two small hands.
‘Very well,’ says her sister, who is slightly older and slightly more ladylike.
The Reverend William Leffington Boltbyn straightens his waistcoat, inhales with feigned gravity, and begins. Before him, the two members of his audience lean forward as though drawn by a string, four lovely eyes limpid with anticipation.
‘As you might recall (especially Miss Emma, as our protagonist du jour), it was late afternoon, an hour not unlike the present, when the light grows long and the verdant lawns here at Crouch Manor take on a peculiar luminosity . . .’ He withdraws his watch from his vest pocket and inspects the instrument carefully. ‘About five-twenty-two, I should think,’ he says, placing the watch face-up upon his knee.
Whispers Lydia to Emma: ‘If he continues describing things I shall lose interest.’
‘Be patient,’ replies Emma. ‘Mr Boltbyn needs to set the scene.’
The vicar resumes. ‘Having undertaken a seemingly endless game of croquet, which followed a seemingly endless hour of moral instruction, Emma was beginning to get sulky and bored . . .’
‘That cannot be,’ objects the older girl. ‘I am quite fond of croquet.’
‘Very well, let us say that Emma was bored with the moral instruction, though not with the game. In the case of her governess, however, it was the reverse — while she disliked croquet, Miss Pouch never tired of moral instruction.’
‘Miss Pouch does not address the ball in the proper manner,’ says Emma. ‘One cannot strike it properly without parting one’s legs.’
‘Oh, Emma,’ sighs Lydia. ‘You are always causing a person to lose the thread.’
Emma turns to her sister and out darts a small pink tongue.
The vicar continues: ‘After a characteristically feeble attempt to strike the ball, and becoming overcome as a consequence by heat-exhaustion, Miss Pouch collapsed in a swoon upon the blanket. Now it was Emma’s turn — and wouldn’t you know, she roqued her governess’s ball!’
‘Oh yes, Mr Boltbyn, that would be splendid!’ cries Lydia.
With a wink to the little girl, the vicar carries on. ‘Emma’s blue croquet ball now rested in contiguity with the red, presenting Miss Pouch’s spirited opponent with an opportunity to avenge any number of slights.’
‘A roque is a perfectly legitimate play, you know,’ says Emma.
‘Quite so. Reassured that a roque is a legal manœuvre, casting an apologetic glance in the direction of her sleeping governess, whose jaw had slackened something like a trout’s . . .’
Ha, ha! Both girls laugh aloud. Lydia widens her eyes and moves her lips in the manner of a fish.
‘Emma placed her tiny left foot atop her ball, lifted her mallet in a wide arc, and swung just as hard as ever she could, thereby to dispatch Miss Pouch’s ball to a distant location, out of play — Crack!’
‘Crack!’ echoes Lydia.
‘But wait! Imagine Emma’s astonishment as the red ball sped away as though shot from a cannon — tearing across the lawn, ripping through a bed of sweet william and bouncing down the hill, only to disappear in the shadows of Adderleigh Forest!’
‘Oh, Emma,’ says the younger girl. ‘You hit it too hard.’
‘Indeed, it is not the first time your sister has underestimated her strength, with awkward results. To make things worse, when she crossed the lawn to retrieve the red ball — it was nowhere to be seen! And what do you say to that, Miss Emma?’
‘I suppose I should say that it is very singular.’
‘How very singular, said Emma to the mallet in her hand as she ran down the hill to the forest, lifted her skirts, dropped to her knees and bent sideways to peer under a wall of vegetation —
only to be met by the indifferent gaze of two centipedes and a worm.
‘Oh, dear! said Emma to her mallet. I had meant to put Miss Pouch out of play, not lose her entirely!’
‘What did the mallet say?’ Three years younger than Emma, Lydia retains a fondness for talking objects.
‘On this subject, the mallet had nothing to say.’
‘When her eyes had finally adjusted to the dark of the forest, Emma managed to catch a glimpse of Miss Pouch’s ball, whose red stripe stood out in the gloom of the forest — and it was still rolling!’
‘“How peculiar,” is what I should say then,’ says Emma, anticipating his request.
‘How very peculiar, Emma said, and without further hesitation strode briskly into the forest — reasoning that, since the ball was not rolling very fast, it should be a simple matter to fetch it.
‘Yet the ball appeared to have a will of its own. When she reached for it, the ball hurried beyond her grasp like a playful kitten — only to come to rest a few yards further on. This it repeated until she had lost her way. And what did she say to that?’
‘Fiddlesticks, I suppose.’
‘Oh, fiddlesticks! Emma said to the croquet ball. What a pickle you have got us in! And the ball finally allowed her to pick it up.
‘As you know, Adderleigh Forest is uncommonly dismal and damp. Enormous trunks towered above the girl like the legs of giants. Sharp brambles reached out for her, and slimy creatures squirmed underfoot, which have never felt the sun — not since a time when monsters wallowed in the fens and witches stirred boiling cauldrons of baby soup!’
Lydia squeals in delighted horror.
‘A procession of fancied terrors raced through Emma’s sensible mind as she stood in what seemed like a darkened room, surrounded by rough, dark columns and a warren of unlit hallways. So many ways to go — and all equally unpleasant-looking! she said to her mallet, which had also grown rather tense.
‘Perched on a branch high above her head, silhouetted against a narrow slice of sky, two cormorants hovered, their long beaks curved downward. That will be a dainty mouthful, said one, come nightfall!’
Boltbyn executes a sudden, shrill imitation of a bird, causing even Miss Emma to flinch in alarm.
‘Oh dear! she cried to her mallet, which had grown quite rigid with fear. Whatever shall we do?’
‘Surely the mallet must have some reply,’ protests Lydia.
‘Not a word, I’m afraid. Then, to Emma’s astonishment, there came a low, gruff sort of a voice from the shadow of a dead tree: If you keep making such a hullabaloo, you will bring all kinds of beasts, mallet or no mallet.
‘Emma was so startled she forgot to cry out — peering into the shadow of a dead hawthorn tree she glimpsed a small figure in a long tweed overcoat, tiny eyes gleaming just beneath the brim of a hunting cap and, in between, the pointed, upturned snout of a hedgehog.
‘You needn’t frighten a person so, she said, trying not to appear as frightened as she really was.
‘To which the hedgehog replied: You, young lady, were in a state from which the capacity to be frightened issued by itself.
‘That is because I am lost. Please, can you show me the way back home?'
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