The Gallows Thief by Bernard Cornwell:
Review by Jacqui Slaney
Most of you will have heard of Bernard Cornwell through his ‘Sharpe’ series and ‘The Warlord Chronicles’, all of which have been mentioned on this blog by Rob.
Having read all these and enjoyed them immensely, I picked this one up with no hesitation. This is the story description:It is Britain in the 1820s. After the wars with France, with unemployment high and soldiers paid off, the government lives in mortal fear of social unrest. The solution is draconian punishment for any crime, and thousands die on the gallows. But despite this, it was possible to petition the King and instigate an investigation. Cornwell's new hero Rider Sandman is a hero of Waterloo struggling to repay his family debts when he becomes involved in the case of a man waiting to be hanged in Newgate prison. Given the job by the Home Secretary of investigating the man's guilt or innocence, Sandman finds himself knee-deep in labyrinthine plots involving bribes, sedition and a massive conspiracy of silence. As this suggests, the contemporary parallels are never far away. The world Cornwell has conjured for us is as richly drawn as any in his distinguished career: gentlemen's clubs and taverns, haughty aristocrats, fashionable painters and their mistresses, and professional cut-throats; all this creates a heady melange that is just as impressive as anything in Cornwell's Sharpe series
Rider Sandman is the hero of the story, he has been likened to Richard Sharpe- but unlike Sharpe, Rider came from a well-to do family. It is due to his father’s debts and suicide that he has been left virtually penniless, as he has given the majority of his funds from selling his officers commission to look after his mother and sister. He lives in rough lodgings while looking for work. He is finally commissioned by the Home Secretary to look into a murder following a recommendation from a friend. In 1817, most people once convicted of a crime hang, but in this case due to Royal intervention, there has to be seen to be a token investigation. Rider however is an honourable man, and cannot just let the case go so easily. The book follows his investigation into the case and we are given insights into the appalling nature of the legal system in those days, the treatment of the prisoners and the complete lack of justice.
This is another excellent story from Cornwell. He sets the scene easily with his descriptions of the worlds in which Rider moves, one minute in the shabby lodgings with highwaymen, the next with his wealthy ex fiancée. At the start of the book, a hanging is described and the graphic description brings it vividly to life, and you feel the hopelessness of those involved and what they have to do to have an efficient hanging. There is good period detail with the use of the slang of the time and also some interesting detail about cricket, which Rider uses as an escape from his problems and we get to see the problems that there were with gambling in the sport even then.
Some reviews say that this is one of the weaker Cornwell novels, as the intrigue is quite basic. However, in my opinion, it is good as any of them with a good plot and as in any of the Cornwell novels, the characters are real and completely individual. There is also a small chance of a sequel, as this novel has a slightly open ending, which we can hope is revisited by the author, as Rider is an excellent character.
9 out of 10