Andrew Martin – Soot

York, 1799.

In August, an artist is found murdered in his home – stabbed with a pair of scissors. Matthew Harvey’s death is much discussed in the city. The scissors are among the tools of his trade – for Harvey is a renowned cutter and painter of shades, or silhouettes, the latest fashion in portraiture. It soon becomes clear that the murderer must be one of the artist’s last sitters, and the people depicted in the final six shades made by him become the key suspects. But who are they? And where are they to be found?

Later, in November, a clever but impoverished young gentleman called Fletcher Rigge languishes in the debtor’s prison, until a letter arrives containing a bizarre proposition from the son of the murdered man. Rigge is to be released for one month, but in that time, he must find the killer. If he fails, he will be incarcerated again, possibly for life.

And so, with everything at stake, and equipped only with copies of the distinctive silhouettes, Fletcher Rigge begins his search across the snow-covered city, and enters a world of shadows…

It had been a while since I’d read a historical mystery or crime novel, so when Andrew Martin’s Soot landed in my inbox, I was quick to accept. Soot was certainly a murder mystery, but it was as much a whydunnit as a whodunnit. Especially since the book’s protagonist, Fletcher Rigge, starts off his investigation with a very limited pool of suspects. The more motives are revealed, the more the reader is seduced into guessing the culprit’s identity, which makes for a very entertaining read. 

The structure of the narrative is quite interesting. Soot isn’t a straight first-person narrative, but neither is it an epistolary novel. Instead, the book is a mixture of first person diary entries from two different narrators, letters, interviews by Messrs Bright and Erskine, and explanatory insertions by the latter, the composer of the whole. The reason for Erskine to collate the narrative and send it on is not truly explained, but then again, who needs a reason for a good story? The framing, however, keeps the fact that any first-person narrative is inherently unreliable very much front and centre. It isn’t clear though how unreliable the narration is, since Erskine often purposely omits duplicate scenes from the text, stating that they were covered in previous extracts. Thus Martin consciously plays with the reliability of the narrative, while through his framing ensuring that the resulting narrative can be considered ’true’ and objective.

Martin delves into the motivations of all of the unsavories on display, sparing no one in Fletcher’s observations of their character. I found it interesting that the sympathetic characters are ones usually driven to the margins, such as Fletcher himself, Esther, and Mrs Kendall, or depicted as less-than-sympathetic, such as the attorney Mr Erskine and his clerk Mr Bright. There was added social commentary in the form of the condemnation of not Captain Harvey’s being bisexual, but his using his knowledge of other men’s homosexual proclivities — and the rampant homophobia of the era — to blackmail them. Similarly, Esther isn’t judged for her previous profession of being a prostitute.

Fletcher is such a complicated young man. His has a very strict moral compass, that perhaps doesn’t always conform to societal norms or help his own interests. He is also prone to a sense of romanticised nostalgia, which makes it hard to accept the march and progress of time. On the points though, there is a lot of growth over the course of the narrative. At one point he even takes a decision that takes him a huge step away from his previous convictions in rather a dramatic way. On the one hand, it was clearly him growing up, but on the other it was also somewhat disturbing , as it uncovered a ruthless streak in him that was previously unsuspected. Besides Fletcher one of the more important narrators is Esther, Captain Harvey’s common-law wife. I really liked her and I would have loved to have seen more of her. The same goes for Mrs Sampson. I didn’t find her as sympathetic, but I found her absolutely intriguing.

I really enjoyed this book for it’s clever construction and the compelling voice of Fletcher Rigge. He was at times infuriating, but always painfully honest and he was hard not to like. Soot is a great story and an entertaining read. It’s a new direction for Andrew Martin, whose historical mysteries have hitherto focused more on the early twentieth century and one I hope he’ll explore more.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.