The Cunning House

Written by Richard Marggraf Turley

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.


The Cunning House
Sandstone Press
RRP: £8.99
Released: March 19, 2015
Pbk

Regency but not Jane Austen. Although this book opens with the shooting of the Duke of Cumberland’s footman, that’s only a teaser leading to an insalubrious knocking shop frequented by the dregs and scum of society. At page 39 one sighs to think that there are 352 more to go. Bad porn can be funny but no amount of competent research can make good porn other than boring when spun out ad extremum.

Somewhere in a slough of illicit sex hints of a plot emerge. There is a dark woman (white or mulatto is immaterial). She is affianced to a mad-doctor (forerunner of a psychiatrist?) who has a mysterious patient with some intriguing sexual pathology that necessitates his doctor’s seeking enlightenment in that celebrated brothel. There is a police raid, he fails to return home and the dark lady retains Wyre, a lawyer, to find him.

Wyre promptly runs into trouble as he starts to uncover hints of a plot involving police (the Bow Street Runners), the judiciary (bent colleagues, perhaps judges), ultimately royalty. The scope is far-reaching; there are spies everywhere for England is at war with France. Napoleon is just across the channel and the people’s panic channelled by the demonizing of home-grown threats. Violent deaths occur, mostly legal, the punishment for sodomy being the gallows if men were lucky; a nastier penalty being mutilation and the prisoner’s genitals burned before his eyes.

Another ducal servant dies and a Royal Inquest held in St James’ Palace, the Duke of Cumberland called as witness. Wyre, the lawyer, attends, constantly thwarted by his superior in his attempts to examine the members of the household and finally the duke.  

Wyre is a sad loser. Still searching for the mad-doctor, the ultimate loose cannon he is beaten up by various thugs, poisoned, and drugged, and all the time falling passionately in love with his dark lady who accompanies him through madhouse, prison, stews and whorehouse returning lewd comments with scathing black patois.

Of its kind this will be a hard book to follow.

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