The Black Hand refers to the death threat delivered by members of the Italian Mafia to anyone they consider a threat. In the case of this latest Will Thomas “Barker & Llewelyn” novel, there is mounting tension between rival Italian crime syndicates—the Mafia and the Camorra—which are vying for control of the impoverished sections of 1880s London, and bodies start turning up. Fearing an explosion of gang violence in London, Scotland Yard turns to private “enquiry agent” Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn to use whatever means at their disposal to defuse the situation. Barker and Llewelyn soon receive “black hand” notices of their own.
Author Thomas uses out-of-time flash forwards and flashbacks to tell his story, starting the novel out with a deadly dagger battle between Llewelyn and a Sicilian assassin in the luxury seashore home of Barker’s suspected mistress. We don’t know who, what, when, where or why until the story begins to unfold in this disjointed and yet somehow effective style. Barker is given free rein to put together a most-unlikely and very risky alliance of criminal elements which have the most to gain at the Italian syndicates’ expense, while hunting down the infamous Mafiosi Marco Faldo who is suspected of being the man behind the assassinations.
At the same time, the author effectively weaves into his story the attitude toward immigrants prevalent in England at the time (and not changed a whole lot since), with all the prejudices and socioeconomic exploitation that entails. The focus of the plot centers on the London docks, where the Italians—both members of the syndicates and innocents—have tended to seek employment. Socialists are trying to organize for improved wages and other workers’ rights for the immigrants, but are up against both the British dockworkers who see them as threatening their jobs, as well as the employers who want the Italians kept as a cheap labor force. Into this maelstrom of discontent steps Marco Faldo on the one hand, and Barker and Llewelyn on the other. A volatile mix, to be sure.
As usual, Thomas’ writing is exciting, with plots that could stand alone but are interlaced with historic events that bring his stories to life. Victorian London comes alive as Thomas gives us tours of the streets, the slums, the countryside, the docks, the restaurants and the lecture halls. We even get treated to a class on dagger fighting. What could be more fun!?