Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #60: The HellFire Conspiracy by Will Thomas

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.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #6: The Hanging Garden by Ian Rankin

Another in the brilliant detective series authored by Rankin and featuring Scottish Inspector John Rebus, The Hanging Garden takes place in the city of Edinborough and is a roller-coaster of a ride through gang feuds, white slavery and prostitution, drugs and weapons trafficking, old Nazis, and even the frightening Japanese Yakuza (mafia).

Rebus is an old-school detective who frequently breaks the rules to right wrongs as he sees them, and then pays the price time and again. He is divorced after years of being more wedded to his job than his wife, he is an alcoholic fighting a daily battle to recover from his addiction, and he is a father who despairs of connecting to his daughter. But his moral compass is true and, as such, he is our hero. This time, he is trying to determine whether an old man was actually a vicious Nazi killer during WWI as people in high places attempt to bury the case. While pondering the question raised by the case of whether justice delayed is still justice, Rebus stumbles across a prostitution ring involving young Bosnian women blackmailed into sex slavery by a slick up-and-coming gangster who is challenging an imprisoned crime boss for control of Edinborough’s seamy underside, and perhaps beyond. When Rebus tries to protect one of the enslaved women, his daughter ends up in a coma–the victim of a hit-and-run–and Rebus fears it is retaliation for his involvement in the prostitution case. He is ineluctably drawn into the gang warfare.

The story escalates rapidly from there, as Rebus painfully pieces together the multi-sided plot of who is doing what to, or with, or against whom, with its repeated surprise twists and turns. In truth, the novel has its weak points: two apparently disparate cases—the Nazi and the prostitution ring—converge a little too conveniently; the turning point in solving the case hinges a little too easily on guesswork, even the friendship that evolves between Rebus’ ex-wife and current girlfriend at his daughter’s hospital bedside was a bit too contrived for my tastes. And yet, Rankin manages to put together an extremely complicated story with satisfying suspense, politically challenging themes, and a complex protagonist with whom we share the frustrations of bureaucracy, the pain of addiction and loneliness, and the lonely business of trying to do the right thing.