I have enjoyed all of Roz Southey’s series, set in 18th century Newcastle, featuring Charles Patterson, the musical sleuth. They are nothing if not original, but their sheer originality raises a number of problems as to whether they can really be classified as crime fiction. It is true that there is always a series of murders, and Charles always solves the crimes by proving the guilt of the perpetrator, but always with supernatural help.
In reading these novels you have to take on board that Charles’s 18th century is in a parallel universe where after death the disembodied spirit lives on in a sort of limbo, loosely attached to the place where he met his death. These spirits are visible to living people and just accepted as perfectly normal. In this world, of course, the crime investigator has a huge advantage because he can actually interview the deceased after the crime! Charles also has the ability to cross over into the alternative universe, which we have to assume is our own, where there are no spirits, and all the same people are living their normal lives. Phew! You see my difficulty?
These novels are actually highly entertaining, and Charles is an engaging character, along with his sidekick Hugh Demsey, the dancing master, his lively and socially superior ladylove, Esther Jerdoun, and his other aristocratic friend, the enigmatic Claudius Heron.
Sword and Song begins with the murder of a young prostitute. Her best customer and actually devoted lover is Constable Bedwalters, the local law officer, who has a frightful shrew of a wife. Nell, the prostitute, had been entertaining another client on several occasions, described by those who saw him as an apprentice. Bedwalters is prostrate with grief and moves into her room at the brothel to wait for Nell’s spirit to appear. (This process takes a day or two).
In the meantime, Charles has been engaged by Edward Alyson, who has recently inherited a large estate a few miles outside Newcastle, to provide the music for a week-long house party to celebrate his arrival at the estate, and to which all the notables of Newcastle and district have been invited (including, of course, Charles’s friends Esther Jerdoun and Claudius Heron). Heron gives Charles a lift to the estate in his carriage to the estate, where Heron is allocated a grand apartment and Charles an attic.
Charles amuses himself by observing the social mores at the house party. He is convinced that Alyson and the forceful lady he introduces as his wife are not in fact married. He receives a message from Newcastle to say that Nell’s spirit has appeared, but all that she can say is that she was stabbed in the back when lying face down on the bed, presumably by the apprentice, who had given her an old book containing manuscript copies of ancient hymn tunes to look after. This volume is no longer in her room, and it is assumed it has been taken by the murderer, presumably the apprentice.
Charles is attacked on several occasions by two muffled figures in black and there are other attacks in Newcastle. There are a fair number of red herrings, but the identity of the murderer becomes apparent to the reader very early on. It does not seem to be apparent to Charles until just before the end of the book, but never mind, it’s all very good fun.