Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Hellfire Conspiracy: Review

The Hellfire Conspiracy (2007) is the fourth entry in Will Thomas's excellent historical mystery series set in Victorian London. The intellectual, yet physically strong inquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn, a former Oxford scholar who was falsely imprisoned, are clearly cast in the Holmes and Watson and/or Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin mold. Thomas has steadily built the characters and their relationships (to each other and to other recurring characters) over the course of the series and this installment gives readers a more in-depth look at the events leading up to Llewelyn's imprisonment--ultimately bringing Llewelyn face-to-face with the man he views responsible. Barker manages to set up a way for his assistant to get his own back.

But on to the mystery. The adventure opens with a visit from a distraught major from the guardsmen. Major DeVere's twelve-year old daughter Gwendolyn has disappeared from offices of the Charity Organization Society. Mrs. DeVere did volunteer work there and would bring Gwendolyn along to expose her to life outside their upper middle-class ways. As Barker and Llewelyn investigate, they discover that while Gwendolyn is the first middle class child to disappear there have been several lower-class girls who went missing and were later found dead--strangled and violated. Though the detectives work as fast as they can, they do not find DeVere's daughter in time to save her from a similar fate and Barker begins to suspect that a serial killer is at work. His suspicions are confirmed when he begins receiving taunting letters from a "Mr. Miacca"--a name taken from a grisly children's fairy tale about a child-eating bogeyman.

Barker leaves his comfortable home and sets up in an empty Bethnal Green warehouse so that he and Llewelyn can keep watch over the neighborhood where "Mr. Miacca" has been at work. Their efforts lead them to a revival of the Hellfire Clubs of earlier times and they must determine if the club is behind the killings or if someone is making use of their rituals as a cover for a more deadly game. 

As usual, Thomas does an excellent job immersing the reader in the world of Victorian London. He brings in pertinent social and political topics and uses them to good effect to propel the plot. What I always appreciate is the way he introduces such topics and informs the reader on them without making it seem like a lecture or an info dump. He weaves the information into the story so the reader learns what's needed (should they not be familiar with the topics), but does not feel overwhelmed. I also enjoy the development of our two detectives and the background that is gradually filled in during the course of each book. Learning the details of Llewelyn's previous difficulties makes his character far more interesting.

The mystery is not overly complicated. Seasoned mystery readers may well spot the villain of the piece before Barker and Llewlyn tracks them down, but the plot is woven so well and the is so well-written that it shouldn't dampen your pleasure much--if at all.  ★★★★

[Finished on 6/1/18]

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