Doesn’t quite live up to its premise…
I hadn’t read any of the previous books in this series, but I usually really like books featuring famous individuals (Queen Elizabeth I, Josephine Tey, Giordano Bruno, Jane Austen, even Agatha Christie herself) as fictional detectives. So I was excited to try out Heather Redmond’s series featuring a very young Charles Dickens as the protagonist. Sadly, The Pickwick Murders, the fourth book in the series, didn’t really live up to its premise.
The story itself isn’t too bad. Dickens is reporting on a provincial election, during which the Tory candidate, Sir Augustus Smirke, is accused of kidnapping (or worse) one of his housemaids. Unfortunately the Tory wins, but Dickens includes the incident as part of his article for the liberal Morning Chronicle, and thereby makes an enemy of Smirke, now a powerful Member of Parliament. So when, shortly thereafter, Dickens is framed for the murder of the President of the Lightning Club, Samuel Pickwick, it seems as if Smirke and/or his minions must have been behind it. Dickens is thrown into Newgate Prison, and it falls to Dickens’ brother, Frederick; his real-life fiancée, Kate Hogarth; her family; and a few other fictional characters to figure out what really happened and clear his name.
Sadly, the execution is lacking. The writing feels flat, and could have used a good edit for pace. In addition, I just couldn’t bring myself to care much about Kate, who is really the lead in this fourth book, but spends a lot of time solving a series of riddles – a plot maneuver that just exceeded my ability to suspend my disbelief. Finally, Dickens himself comes across as arrogant, which he may have been, and might even have deserved to be, but that didn’t really make me want to read more about him either. All-in-all, The Pickwick Murders dragged, and I had trouble finishing it, which is quite rare for me.
I did like the background a lot. The descriptions of the provincial election process, the British criminal justice system, Newgate prison itself, even the odd-ball private clubs of the time – all seem well researched and consistent with what I already know about the period. The author also provides a useful cast of characters at the beginning, identifying which were real and which were not. That helped too, especially since I was jumping into the series on the fourth book. I would still recommend this book for people who are huge Dickens fans (I’m at best a middling fan), or have read and liked the earlier books, or who are especially interested in this time period and its social movements. Without the historical strength, I probably would have given The Pickwick Murders two stars, but am giving it three because I liked the background so much. And finally, my thanks to the publishers, Kensington Books, and to NetGalley for the advance review copy.