Oh boy… (pun unintended). Never had a book started sooo slow, while teasing the reader in unpardonable ways (pun totally intended), in the way of “you’ll see later how this line is important, wink wink”. I’m okay with foreshadowing at the very beginning of the book, but the very systematic use of this trick is plain annoying. I stuck with the plot until the end, but more than once did I nearly stop, nearly forgot the book in the train, or nearly abandoned it at the bottom of the huge pile on my sidetable. I don’t quite know what saved it every time, but I guess it was the great depiction of the Regency period. I’m normally more adept of the Victorian mysteries so it was a great discovery.
I was first lured in by the CWA Dagger this book was awarded in 2003, and by all the promising ingredients for a Gothic mystery it offered: a schoolmaster with a shady past, an isolated, chilly manor in the Gloucestershire countryside, a bit of London fog full of thugs, a cruel tyrant, damsels in distress (sexy ones), a cameo apparition of Edgar Poe as the eponymous American boy… Taylor seems influenced by Gothic novels, by Wilkie Collins’ early Victorian mysteries and by Dickens’ richness of memorable, if slightly unbelievable characters. While his book is no copycat of any of these 3 influences, clearly he hasn’t made a choice.
I hasten to add that the narrator’s voice saves the day: Thomas Shield, an impoverished yet cultivated young man returning from the Napoleon wars, turns school-master out of opportunity. He gets close to two pupils in particular, the 10 year old Edgar Allan Poe and his best friend, Charles Frant. Following some chance events Shield actually leaves the school to tutor the boys while they return to Frant’s family, where Shield gets even more mixed up in complex family ties and mysteries.
Choosing neither an aristocrat nor a servant as the narrator allows Taylor to offer a unique view: just like governesses in Victorian novels observe above stairs and down stairs events, Shield living with the Frant family is a form of dignified servant dining with his masters. The difference with the traditional Victorian governess figure is that Shield is no meek creature in the corner and actually gets his hands dirty (there are grisly details which I’ll spare you).
It’s hard to sum this huge book up, but really I felt it was all a bit too much an accumulation of characters and side plots after a while. Taylor nearly lost me. In my opinion, it’s a bit of a shame, because he had materials to write two or three more focused books.