Katherine Armstrong has worked in publishing for over six years. She is a crime fiction Editor for an independent publishing company in London.
I’d never read Mark Sanderson before but I was intrigued by the idea of this book when I read the blurb.
It’s 1937 and John Steadman, a journalist readers may be familiar with from Sanderson’s previous book Snow Hill, has decided to propose to his girlfriend, Stella, in the Whispering Gallery in St Paul’s Cathedral. Instead of getting down on bended knee though, Steadman is faced with the problem of a suspected suicide who has fallen onto a priest. Like any good crime reporter his main question is was it actually suicide, or was it murder? Was the priest in the wrong place at the wrong time or is there something more sinister going on in the church?
This suicide/murder is the secondary plot that serves as an accompaniment for the main storyline, which involves a sadistic killer who is targeting both Steadman and, more lethally, young women whom he mutilates and then presents various pieces of them to Steadman as ‘gifts’.
The Whispering Gallery explores many difficult themes – love, paedophilia, betrayal and corruption – but overall I found that it lacked some believability. From Chapter One there were lines that jarred – ‘However, he was not in St Paul’s to pray but to propose marriage to Stella, the green-eyed, glossy-haired temptress…’
Steadman is at first portrayed as a man who is good with women – there are many women who continually flirt with him throughout the novel – but the language used to describe what he feels for Stella comes across as rather florid and forced – ‘She was his new-found land that he would never tire of exploring’; ‘If Stella agreed to be his wife, the two of them would become one, and he would be in paradise’.
From this we move into different territory with Steadman’s attraction to his friend Matt coming under suspicion from various people at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Sanderson looks at the position of homosexuals during 1930s London and the difficulties that they faced in a sympathetic way.
The loving but maybe not ‘in love’ relationship that Johnny and Matt share is tender and well-drawn and I got the impression that what Sanderson would have preferred would have been to write a novel where his two male protagonists would have a relationship. Instead the Johnny/Stella relationship comes across as what Stella herself accuses Johnny of being – merely half-hearted. Overall this is an ambitious novel but unfortunately fails to deliver.