Soot - Andrew Martin

Soot - Andrew Martin ****

York, 1799. Fletcher Rigge has been hired to carry out an investigation by the son of a gentleman who has recently been murdered. Matthew Harvey was a portrait artist specialising in 'shades' - silhouetted portraits of his sitters. His son, Captain Harvey has reason to suspect that the murder may be among one of the six last portraits he made during Race Week. The suspicion is confirmed by the fact that the names of the sitters have been torn from the ledger, so all Fletcher Rigge has to go on to find the six clients is the shadowed profiles that exist of them in copies that the artist has kept.

That's an interesting basis for a murder-mystery enquiry, but there are a few other peculiarities about Andrew Martin's Soot. First of all, Fletcher Rigge is no 18th century private investigator, but rather a bookseller and writer who currently resides in debtor's prison. Captain Harvey (with his wonderfully eccentric and dissolute companion-servants) has however heard of the bookseller's keen eye for detail and has paid part of Rigge's debt with the remainder to be paid on completion of his assignment. Rigge is in no position to refuse, and since it also means he can pursue his courting of Miss Lucy Spink, he immediately looks into matters.

What is also interesting about Soot is the manner of its telling. It's written as an collection of documents, memos, statements and letters from a variety of witness accounts, including entries from Fletcher Rigge's own diary. These have been assembled by a certain Mr Erskine, an attorney-at-law for the Chief Magistrate of York, and the resulting account is a colourful mixture of salacious gossip and semi-formal documents with pithy observations and interjections. It's the process of the investigation however that is going to be the critical point of Soot, and as the various perspectives and the 'shadowy' set-up suggests, it's an intriguing look at late-18th century York, its society and characters, with their strange behaviours and peculiarities.

This is all vividly depicted, but not just in a randomly colourful manner as the assembled nature of the structure might lead you to believe. There are other layers at work here, brought out in a series of encounters and in correspondence between the characters. Matters of honour, trust and social position are revealed as being important, with people quick to make judgements on appearances, on what company people keep, but above all in relation to the money they have and their financial prospects. For all his cleverness of observation, Fletcher Rigge seems to be a man out of step with what society deems important, and he doesn't really seem to care how he is regarded by others either.

Neither it seems does Lucy Spink, but there are other factors that come into play relating to society, gossip and expectations and it's fascinating to see the thread of such matters weaving through the various narrative perspectives. And, as you might imagine, it's money that tends to be very much behind the murder and its investigation. It's only by putting all these elements together that a face might emerge out of the shadows, so to speak, and reveal their true nature. On the other hand, in such dark matters, the resolution might not be as black and white as you would like to think.

Soot by Andrew Martin is published by Corsair.

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