One of Thomas’ series of “Barker & Llewelyn” detective mysteries taking place in Victorian London, The HellFire Conspiracy is another exciting whodunit successfully weaving together a suspenseful plot, lots of action, a little romance, politics, and a plethora of characters who overlap with real history. It is 1885, and private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn have been hired by one of the royal guardsmen whose pre-teen daughter has just been abducted by what the father believes to be white slavers. When her ravaged body turns up several days later, Barker learns that she is one of several pre-teen girls who have come to the same fate in recent weeks, and suspects a serial killer on the loose.
At the same time, tensions are developing on the political front as activists speaking for young working-class women and children who for economic reasons were being forced into prostitution, are pressing for a political bill before the House of Commons and the House of Lords that would raise the age of consent from 13 to 16 years. Many people from all walks of life were involved in this historic effort, including the socialist Fabian society, the Salvation Army and its various charity spinoffs, some powerful newspaper editors and even some parliamentarians. However, there was tremendous opposition within the government and among political and financial interests which were heavily tied into the flourishing prostitution trade at the time.
In the novel, various powerful aristocrats in the House of Lords, for either personal or financial reasons, want the age of consent kept at 13 so that the brothels can meet the needs of clients with “specific tastes” and so that their Freemasonic spinoff called the HellFire Club can continue its satanic orgies with suspected ritual sacrifice of virgins. When Barker pursues the trail of the murdered girls to this Club, he is warned off by one of the lords, who keeps thugs on his payroll for just such “persuasion.” At the same time, Barker is being taunted by a series of “poems” delivered to his doorstep by the girls’ killer, who Barker suspects is part of the Hellfire Club. Barker’s two targets converge and the hunt is on.
As our dynamic duo pursues the leads, they repeatedly cross paths with Scotland Yard, which is determined to keep Barker out of the picture. Although author Thomas never comes right out and says it, it is clear to this reader at least that the Yard detective on the case might be more than a little involved in the Hellfire Club. While the killer is eventually exposed and caught, and a courageous newspaper editor goes to jail to bring the horrors of sexual exploitation of children to the public eye, the Hellfire Club remains fundamentally untouched at the end, and the reader is left with the uneasy feeling that we will meet this nasty bunch of oligarchs in future Barker/Llewelyn encounters.